Tuesday, July 10, 2007

At the Mercy of Humans

Captive whales and dolphins are forced to interact with humans on a daily basis, in the form of trainers, veterinarians and visitors. According to a former dolphin hunter, the animals are required to acknowledge the presence of, and eventually accept, contact with humans.

In the wild, animals have some control over various elements of their lives, for example, feeding, social interactions or pursuing a mate. In captivity they do not; the keepers and trainers choose and control everything. If the animals do not obey their masters, they may be isolated from the other animals, food may be withheld or unappetizing food (usually fish-heads) may be given instead as punishment.

Routine veterinary care, still relatively primitive, can be stressful to the animals and may actually harm them. Captive animals are regularly given antibiotics and other drugs, yet pneumonia - triggered by stress or a compromised immune system - is the most commonly cited cause of death in whales and dolphins.

Whales and dolphins, accustomed to hunting, catching and eating live prey, must learn to accept dead fish from their keepers. Eating dead fish instead of chasing down live ones is a tremendous change - dead fish are not recognizable to them.

Sometimes it is necessary to force-feed the animals through a stomach tube to keep the animal alive until it learns to accept an artificial diet. Some animals refuse to eat and eventually starve to death.

Vitamin and mineral supplements for the whales and dolphins are hidden inside the dead fish they’re given, which indicates that their diet is deficient in some way. Frozen fish is, in fact, lower in nutritional quality than live fish. The lack of dietary variety may also contribute to behavioural and other problems.

The careless actions of visitors are also a threat to the animals’ health. Autopsies reveal that a large number of dolphins and orcas have swallowed rubber toys, fishing buoys, rocks, coins and other objects, which may have contributed to their deaths.

The coffee shop at the Vancouver Aquarium, located next to the beluga tank, had to stop handing out straws with served beverages after it was discovered the belugas were choking on straws discarded by customers.

Petting pools can found at other facilities around the world, but Marineland is believed to be the only one that permits contact with orcas. While this encounter may be exciting for the guests, it can be extremely stressful to the animals, forced into the situation whether they want it or not.

Visitors who wish to pet and feed the animals are instructed by staff to remove all jewelry and watches first (to avoid ingestion and prevent the animals from accidentally hooking onto an object and pulling someone into the pool). This however is rarely enforced, and visitors regularly touch the animals with their jewelry on.

This puts both the public, and the animals, at risk. Human safety and animal welfare are compromised to provide the “unique thrill” of petting a whale or dolphin.

Training Methods & Performances

In captivity, cetaceans are trained to perform various tricks so they can entertain audiences. To properly train captive whales and dolphins, food is the key. Since the animals are unable to secure food from other sources, they must do whatever their trainers want. This gives the trainers considerable control over the animals.

When an animal performs a trick correctly, it receives a reward of fish (thus the purpose of the trainer’s whistle, to indicate to the animal that it has performed properly). When the animal does not perform to the trainer’s satisfaction, food is withheld. Known as operant conditioning or positive reinforcement, it’s really food deprivation.

Training can be very strict, and has been compared to the military method used in training soldiers. Captive animals are exposed to a lot of stress as a result, which they release through depression, aggression, or sexual activity.

Watching whales and dolphins perform various tricks may be exciting for the spectators, but they are abnormal behaviours to the animals. Wild cetaceans do not play basketball, tail walk or do water ballet. Nor do they propel humans into the air from their heads or allow people to ride on their backs as if they were surfboards.

Training whales and dolphins to perform these abnormal behaviours is the manipulation of an animal’s abilities - reinforced with the animal’s knowledge that food will be withheld if it doesn’t perform satisfactorily.

Unfortunately, whales and dolphins, without proper nurturing, or the opportunity to execute normal, natural behaviours on a regular basis, will gradually lose their foraging abilities. This has been known to manifest itself into aggression and other abnormal behaviours.

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