Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Life in a Tank

To a wild whale or dolphin, everything in captivity is strange and unnatural, including separation from their natural habitat; forced idleness; direct control by humans; loss of life in normal social groups; drugs, medication, fertility control and caging – a total alien environment with artificial diets, unusual noise, strange odours and the unnatural proximity of both alien species and the human visitor.

A concrete tank is a poor substitute for the ocean, and it is impossible to recreate a whale or dolphin’s natural habitat; the ocean is infinitely too complex. Pool size, shape, depth and design are dictated by budgetary constraints and by satisfying the needs of the public instead of meeting the needs of the animals.

Animals that are accustomed to traveling up to 150 kilometers (90 miles) a day are forced to live in an area thousands, if not millions of times smaller. On average, a dolphin or whale tank is only six or seven times longer than the length of the animal itself. It only takes a few seconds for the animal to reach the other side of its ‘world.’

Chlorine and other chemical disinfectants are added to artificial seawater to keep the pools clean and clear, making it even easier for visitors to see the animals. This results in a barren, sterile and impoverished environment, yet aesthetically pleasing from the visitor’s point of view.

Compare this to a world made up of coral reefs, forests of kelp and seaweed, sand, rocks and ice. Wild animals are also able to enjoy the effects of storms and rolling tides while interacting with other ocean species. Life in a tank - sterile, smooth and devoid of everything that makes life interesting and challenging - is anything but natural.

Captives are also unable to achieve the necessary exercise they need for their physical, mental and social growth. Enrichment tools such as BoomerBalls, hoops, heavy ropes and Frisbees can stimulate mental and physical processes while reducing stress.

They also increase physical activity, which can have a positive effect on appetite, respiration and muscle function as well as providing the animal with some control over its environment. Unfortunately, enrichment tools are absent from most marine parks.

Inappropriate Social Conditions

While animals are isolated during their initial capture, transport and arrival, they are also separated from other animals during routine medical tests, pool cleanings and training sessions. Premature separation of calves from their mothers also puts stress on the animals and interrupts the natural process of learning skills necessary to survive. Some animals have been kept partially or completely isolated from other animals for years.

Others have even attempted suicide. Baby Jane, a pilot whale at Marineland of Canada, was reported to have “suicidal tendencies” after she began charging head-on into the metal bars of her holding tank a month after arriving at the park. According to eyewitnesses, she repeatedly smashed into the wall of her tank, blood gushing from a gash in her head.

A number of other whales have also been known to intentionally smash themselves into observation windows and the sides of their tanks. Sea World’s Kanduke (originally acquired from Marineland) was reported to occasionally beat his head against the gate until it bled.

Unnatural social groupings also lead to aggression among animals that are unable to avoid each other in a tank. Kanduke, a Pacific orca, and Kotar, an orca from Iceland, frequently exhibited aggressive behaviour towards each other. In 1987, Kotar bit Kanduke’s penis, turning the pool water red with blood and causing damage serious enough to cancel performances for the next two days.

In the wild, orcas do not solve their problems aggressively. Killer whales travel in kinship groups or clans and they do not have aggressive interactions. If other whales come along from a different group, they simply avoid each other. In a tank, this is quite impossible.

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