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Are Dolphin Shows Cruel?

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Layne worked as a wildlife rehabilitator and medical intern for several years before becoming a licensed veterinary technician (LVT).

Does performing tricks really keep them happy?

Does performing tricks really keep them happy?

Why Dolphin Shows, Tricks, and Training Are Cruel

I love wildlife and dolphins so much, I wanted to see them up close and personal. I want to touch them, swim with them, interact with them . . . it's simply magical, right?

It took me several years of working with domestic animals in captivity (shelters) and wildlife in rehabilitation to really see what kind of effect captivity and these shows have on complex species. I have watched Blackfish, which investigates Sea World, and The Cove, which are two incredibly revealing documentaries, and these films reinforced my beliefs but didn't form them.

I've mostly formed my opinions from the empathetic interactions I've had with species of all kinds. Being a surfer and someone who enjoys the open ocean, there's nothing more pleasing than being in the presence of a pod of dolphins in the wild . . .

Are Dolphins Happy in Captivity?

There are many myths surrounding captive dolphins. One is that they are always smiling—bearing a toothy grin. Which means they're happy, right? Here's the truth:

  • Dolphins don't smile. This apparent "smile" is merely a display of their natural features; that is, they do not have control over their "smiling" capability. An open beak is simply a display, not a smile. Just as cats will purr when in pain and dogs will wag when nervous.
  • Dolphins are social. Many dolphins are separated from their pods, their family. Dolphin calves or babies, especially, are captured and pulled away from their parents in the wild. These babies are meant to be with mom for 3-6 years.
  • Dolphins need space. Dolphins are only given less than 1% of the space that they typically have available to them in their natural environment. They are given even less stimulation, and swim in chemically treated pools and are given antibiotics and medications for stomach ulcers due to behaviors like tank degradation, ingesting unnatural objects, and captivity-related injuries.
  • Dolphins are sensitive. Dolphins are sensitive, inquisitive species and require stimulation, socialization, space, and a natural space—booming music, chlorinated pools, and deprivation (yes, some shows use deprivation for training in unregulated areas or abroad), are extremely harmful and cruel.
What are dolphins really communicating when they "smile"?

What are dolphins really communicating when they "smile"?

Facts About Dolphins

  • Wild dolphins can swim up to 100 miles a day.
  • No laws exist in the U.S. to protect the welfare of dolphins.
  • Laws in the U.S. only offer guidelines for capturing and confinement.
  • It is still legal to capture wild dolphins.
  • Many dolphins are collected via stranding.
  • National Marine Fisheries Services permits the capture of dolphins for scientific research, display, conservation, or accidental capture.

Even in the largest captive facilities, dolphins have access to less than 1/10,000 of 1% (0.000001%) of the space available to them in their natural environment.


Do Captive Animals Commit Suicide?

In an interesting article by, titled "What It Means To Say a Dolphin Committed Suicide" we revisit the argument in case of "Peter," the bottlenose dolphin who is said to have committed suicide and "Kathy" (one of several Flipper characters), who is said to have purposefully ceased breathing in the arms of her trainer Ric O'Barry—essentially drowning herself.

These claims are hard to conclude because there is so little we understand about the complexities of other species. We know that many species are social, exhibit symptoms of depression much like humans, self-harming behaviors from boredom, and aggression from frustration—look at domesticated dogs.

How Smart Are Dolphins?

Dolphins are brilliant and have existed for 15 million years (the bottlenose dolphin). According to

  • They understand symbols and syntax.
  • They can mimic humans.
  • They recognize themselves in mirrors.
  • They mourn their dead.
  • They exhibit empathy and attachment.
  • Their brain size to body size is second to humans.
  • They pass down their communication generation to generation.
  • The develop tools (using sea sponges to cover rostrums when rooting in sharp coral).
  • They recognize their thoughts (termed metacognition).

Victorian scientists were particularly interested in this question, according to historian Edmund Ramsden in a 2010 article. Humane societies were eager to prove that animals experienced humanlike emotions, and animal suicides offered proof. A series of such stories began to appear in periodicals in 1845.


You're way cooler seeing them in the wild.

You're way cooler seeing them in the wild.

Captive Dolphins Are Constantly Bombarded by Noise Pollution

Dolphins communicate via acoustics. Have you ever held your ears under water in a bathtub or a swimming pool or even the ocean? Every pop, clack, or bang is amplified! Imagine the amount of sensory overload these sensitive species are receiving when surrounded by the visiting public. We know we shouldn't tap on the glass of their enclosures, but can you imagine what the noise of a soundtrack may do to them during a performance? Intense, right?

The Behavior of Dolphins in Captivity

Dolphins in captivity exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Swimming in circles
  • Inter-tank aggression
  • Self-harm
  • Anorexia
  • Redirection
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Isolation and "loneliness"

All of these behaviors are "symptomatic" of the consequences of captivity.

Boredom and Unhealthy Captive Behaviors

How Big Are Dolphin Tanks in the U.S.?

The Animal Welfare Act of 1979 oversees the standards of captive dolphin care, which includes vet. care, diet, transportation and habituation, water quality, and space. According to, once dolphins enter into captivity, however, the USDA Animal Plant and Inspection Service is in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.

Dolphin Tank Size Requirements

In the U.S., a dolphin can be kept in a tank size of 24 x 24 feet (6 feet deep).

Swimming and Petting Dolphins: Dolphin Interactions

1998 was the year that interaction guidelines were created by the USDA. Swimming with dolphins, though portrayed as pleasurable for both dolphins and people, is actually quite dangerous. Dolphins in captivity are not domesticated—and all wild animals' behavior can be unpredictable. That means they can drown you.

The best dolphin show is a wild dolphin show.

The best dolphin show is a wild dolphin show.

How Many Dolphins Are Killed Each Year?

Facts about dolphin deaths:

  • Dolphins take more than 30 minutes to die.
  • Many hunted species are endangered.
  • Many dolphins that are corralled are captured for dolphin shows.
  • Drive hunts kill nearly 20,000 dolphins a year.
  • The price of a live dolphin ranges from $32,000 to 250,000.
  • Dolphin meat is sold for consumption and contains high levels of mercury (but is often unlabeled).

Recent documentaries have revealed the killing of dolphins in Taiji as well as in other areas of the world. Coastal whale hunts have taken place since the 1600s. Taiji sees dolphin meat as a vital food source, and much of this is rooted in tradition. Today, drive hunts are used to corral dolphins into the cove, concentrate them, and slaughter them in number. According to the, "Dolphin slaughter turns sea read as Japan hunting season returns":

"Over the next six months the town's fishermen will catch about 2,300 of Japan's annual quota of 20,000 dolphins. The meat from a single animal fetches up to 50,000 yen (£330), but aquariums are prepared to pay up to £90,000 for certain types."

Who Is at Fault?

We all have to do our part to advocate for the protection of endangered and threatened species. We also have to do our work to understand communities and cultures with different traditions. The most effective way to change a negative behavior is by replacing it with a sustainable positive.

Many communities have shifted their habits to better ways of subsistence by simply working on a solution. Consider watching Racing Extinction, a film that documents the transformation of a community. The community went from hunting manta rays as part of their tradition and livelihood to ecotourism.

The happiest dolphin (or porpoise) is a wild dolphin.

The happiest dolphin (or porpoise) is a wild dolphin.

Can I Buy a Dolphin and Are Pet Dolphins for Sale?

No. According to the Endangered Species Act, dolphins are considered in danger of extinction. You cannot own one.

A note about captivity: It's important to note that not all facilities should be branded as evil—some facilities host veterinary teams and the sort that work exceptionally hard to provide the best life for these creatures and some facilities do their best to operate on an ethical level—this includes protected threatened species. But the argument still stands that wildlife is best kept wild.

The Best Dolphin Show Is a Wild Dolphin Show

Keep in mind that we should observe how we treat ALL species—slaughtering dolphins is no different from slaughtering cattle, chickens, and pigs inhumanely. This doesn't mean you have to stop eating meat—you can—but opt for sustainable and humane sources.



This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Laynie H

Please share your thoughts.

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on June 14, 2019:

Yes, in fact, orcas deserve an article of their own!

Madame Rose Peony on June 14, 2019:

Aren't killer whales dolphins and shouldn't you add informations about killer whales in captivity to this article?

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on June 10, 2019:

Madame—I'm not sure I've seen a functional robot dolphin. I'd probably rather watch a hologram/VR creation or some high quality visual performance.

Madame Rose Peony on June 10, 2019:

What do you think about living dolphins being replaced with robot dolphins for audience amusement

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on June 03, 2019:

Thanks so much for commenting Lora—I agree that readers would enjoy educating themselves and reading your article “The Blood Dolphins.” I think we've both watched the Cove and Blackfish—these films changed my mind forever. These species are so beautiful and intelligent—they deserve to stay wild. It's time that WE change.

Lora Hollings on June 03, 2019:

A wonderful article exposing the cruel side to dolphin captivity. There is no way that dolphins can have a happy life in captivity which deprives them of so many things basic to their needs! As you express so well in your article as well as provide evidence for this, Layne, dolphins are extremely intelligent and aware. We need to respect dolphins and all whales for the beautiful wild mammals that they are and we don’t have a right to enslave them just for our entertainment. When you read how many dolphins die in captivity every year plus how stressful and sad their lives are in a captive situation, why would you even want to buy a ticket to see them in such a place? It is dolphin captivity which also drives the dolphin hunts of Taiji where thousands of dolphins are killed every year! When you buy tickets to dolphin shows and theme parks which exhibit captive dolphins, you are supporting this cruel industry. The government of Japan conceals the fact that dolphin meat is very high in mercury and this is why the people of Japan still continue to consume dolphin meat. The barbaric hunts in Taiji's cove are also kept hidden from the people who live there. Signs are posted everywhere warning people to "Keep Out.” If you watch the brilliant documentary, “The Cove” you sill see what Ric O’Barry and his camera crew had to go through just to make this film. If you would like to read more about this documentary, please visit my article entitled “The Blood Dolphins.” Thank you for sharing this important information about our beautiful friends, the dolphins.

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on June 03, 2019:

Madame—this is true. Some animal rights activists find that keeping a dog on a leash (even walking them) or "owning" or "keeping" any animal for that matter, even domestic, is cruel. I'd much prefer a robotic dolphin. I think a koala is a marsupial, and the Giant panda is not.

Madame Rose Peony on June 03, 2019:

What are differences between koala and giant panda?

Madame Rose Peony on June 03, 2019:

People really are strange animals,they keep other animals as pets,whatever animals they want

Madame Rose Peony on June 03, 2019:

If you want to keep dolphins as pets,then the best thing to do is to buy either a robot dolphin or stuffed toy dolphin

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on May 31, 2019:

Madame—that's a good question. Yes dolphin meat makes it into human food (tuna) if it is not dolphin-safe and I imagine pet food—depending on the quality or source, but often pet food is ground bits of trimmings etc. Dolphins/porpoises/small whales, I'm sure have been a staple traditionally in some cultures throughout the world (would have to research). I'm not really sure if there is a "high quality" "captivity" method for dolphins—I'd only advocate for captive dolphins if they are non-releasable (aka permanently injured and have a prosthetic but show promise/are cared for appropriately, some naturalists would simply opt for euthanasia over captivity). The point of the article is to stop holding dolphins captive and too stop consuming them or at least reduce consumption/hunting and find more sustainable methods for feeding societies that depend on them. Eventually, whether we are eating cows, dolphins, whales, crickets, the way we are treating the planet, the species of the planet, and our 9+billion population and sloppy methods of consumerism, pollution, greed, whatever you want to call it that humans are contributing are going to all affect us—independent of where we are geographically, how we live, and what we believe in. "high-quality captivity" is not achievable. Humans get sent to prison as punishable and a little fish bowl for these species is the same. It's simply cruel, there's really no argument around that. Consumption is something worth talking about, however.

Madame Rose Peony on May 31, 2019:

Where else,other than Japan,are dolphins hunted for their meat?

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on May 26, 2019:

It's around 20,000, dolphins, porpoises, and small whales

Madame Rose Peony on May 26, 2019:

Do you know how many dolphins are killed for their meat in Taiji,Japan each year?

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on May 25, 2019:

Madame Rose—I would imagine finding a method of sustainable fish farming—aquaculture. And it being an island, there are some really strong emerging methods of aquaculture out at sea (with open habitats). I'm not an environmental scientists nor do I have a marine biology degree, but often we have to come up with alternatives and often none are without consequences but there is always an alternative. There's a great film about this based on a community that went from ray hunting to eco-tourism. Also, as many of us are realizing meat (cows—especially in the US, meat production, methane, corn feed, antibiotics etc.) needs to be replaced with alternatives. Wendy's is now carrying a veggie burger—a great start. Unfortunately we humans are depleting our food sources. California is seeing its largest whale stranding ever this year simply because the whales' food sources are depleted, so they are dying, floating to the surface, boat strike, etc. too weak to move in time. Changes need to happen fast. And as humans, we can selfishly give up certain things. No one will die without dolphin meat.

Madame Rose Peony on May 25, 2019:

What we can replace dolphin meat with?

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on May 25, 2019:

Madame Rose Peony—that's interesting information but it sounds very unlikely that fermentation limits the amount of mercury. As far as I'm familiar, mercury cannot be reduced from the tissues even with fermenting (please explain more).

I understand that this is a food has been traditionally use for hundreds of years (hence Taiji individuals have 10x higher mercury loads than the national average), but based on our current environmental climate, this is a species that needs protecting and with traditions like this its really important to find alternatives to dolpin meat because that economy will eventually collapse so dolphin meat won't even be available (or a scarcity). Many of those species that are hunted in Japanese waters are facing extinction even though the Japanese government argues that small cetaceans be excluded from the International Conventionion Whaling. The EIA has said that this is an UNSUSTAINABLE practice the annual quote of 16,000 is too high and based on 20 yo data. Even though I totally disagree with eating depleted species and opt for mainly vegetarianism etc., there needs to be a stricter catch limit for Taiji at a minimum.

Madame Rose Peony on May 25, 2019:

Dolphin meat goes perfectly with:



*soy sauce


Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on May 24, 2019:

Bubble Mara—the purpose of this article is demonstrate why dolphins should not be kept in captivity. These centers (sometimes) provide veterinary care, a varied diet, and enclosures with somewhat regulated waters AT BEST. This is not the case for private/household ownership (if there even is such a thing). The point is, these animals are being 100% deprived of their natural environment, their families are being broken up, they develop behavioral issues and illness due to captivity, they are being contained in treated water, they are depressed and aggressive towards each other and their trainers, some training methods are cruel, and its an animal welfare issue. Owning a captive animal as a pet is an extremely selfish and irresponsible choice and you would be paying thousands of dollars to likely brutally snag one from the wild. Many wild species will die from inability to thrive in inadequate conditions. Not to mention, imagine owning a captive dolphin in a landlocked area—how will you provide for the right oceanic conditions? Many groups are working to EXPOSE captivity centers around the world. Footage reveals brutal conditions and cruelty. As a veterinary medical profession I HIGHLY discourage anyone from even considering illegal wildlife ownership beyond the obvious moral factor that its simply cruel and selfish.

Bubble Mara on May 23, 2019:

If dolphin shows were banned,than keeping them as pets would be OK,right?

Bubble Mara on May 23, 2019:

Ow those dolphin shows

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on April 14, 2019:

Yes—I think I've been to orca shows as well way back. I've definitely done some reading since and have found a fondness for keeping them wild. The documentaries, of course, were shocking. I try to stay neutral for everyone—I definitely love them in the wild. Thanks for taking a read.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 14, 2019:

Years ago we took our family to a few dolphin shows, mainly because they were a novelty to us. We don't have them in the UK, so when we found them in Spain and France we went to them. Since that time, we have tended to go on boat trips in search of the dolphins in the sea, which we are more comfortable with.