An Ethical Question Regarding Marine Mammals

An Ethical Question Regarding Marine Mammals

Last month, I asked readers how they felt about eating meat. I was curious if us being horse people swayed that choice one way or the other, but it seems like everyone fell pretty across the board.


In a similar area, I have  another ethical question for you today!

First, I have to back up.  When I was a little kid, my two favorite animals were Orca whales and unicorns.  I wanted to be a marine biologist with the raging passion of a six year old.  When I was slightly older, I read somewhere that Sea World trainers have to be able to hold their breath for somewhere around 5 minutes in order to even try out for the job.

Photo by auntie rain
Photo by auntie rain

So naturally, I started practicing holding my breath in the pool so I could be a whale trainer.

Obviously, I didn’t become a whale trainer at sea world or even a marine biologist.  I still do love marine mammals though, and I love visiting aquariums.  However, there’s a caveat to that love – I don’t think marine mammals of any kind should be kept in captivity for entertainment purposes.  Specifically, seeing Orcas in show tanks kind of makes me sick.

Photo by The MacGirl
Photo by The MacGirl

It didn’t always used to be that way.  Like many kids, I went to Sea World and want any opportunity to see whales up close.  I’ve been to several dolphin shows at other aquariums, and I’ve always wanted to “swim with the dolphins”. However, the older I got the more I felt like “hey, maybe we shouldn’t put animals that are used to an entire ocean into a tank.”

Now comes the cliche part of my ethical choice, because what sealed the deal for me was a documentary called The Cove.  If you haven’t seen it and love animals of any kind, I recommend watching.  For now, I’ll give you a spoiler alert.  A lot of dolphins are slaughtered in the name of entertainment, which includes Sea World type places and “Swim with the dolphins” and lots of others.  On top of the slaughtering, there is a lot of messed up shit with keeping dolphins in captivity.

Photo by digicla
Photo by digicla

After I saw that film, I swore off Sea World entirely and won’t visit any aquarium (even state ones, which are usually okay in my book) that does a dolphin type entertainment show.

A more recent film that’s gotten a lot of buzz, Blackfish, just sealed the deal for me even more.  Unlike The Cove which focuses on the process of getting dolphins from the wild to entertainment venues, Blackfish specifically chronicles Orca whales being kept in captivity.  It’s also eye opening, and I want to watch it a second time.

Photo by suneko
Photo by suneko

No, this doesn’t really relate to horses at all… but as horse lovers we’re also usually animal lovers and I’m curious what you think.  Usually I’m not the kind of person who is all you must think like I think because I’m obviously awesome, but this is a case where I really suggest you watch these movies and think about this issue.  I would love to see it become illegal in my lifetime to keep whales & dolphins in privately owned entertainment venues.

Where do you stand on this issue?  Does owning horses make you think slightly differently on this topic, or do you think you’d have the same opinion regardless of your experience with large animals?

40 thoughts on “An Ethical Question Regarding Marine Mammals

  1. The Cove is one of the most moving films I have ever seen. It totally opened my eyes. It made me cry and I DO NOT cry at movies. Like you, I loved seeing marine animals at places like Sea World as a kid. But as I’ve grown older I’ve realized it’s not what is best for them. Some of them adapt OK I suspect, but I can’t see how it is good for long term mental or physical health. I have not seen Blackfish – will go watch that now. 🙂

    1. The Cove is a lot more intense than Blackfish. Cove focuses on how they capture animals and animal welfare, whereas Blackfish is a nice mix of animal welfare AND employee safety – which is obviously important too.

  2. I think there is a definite value to exposing those of us who aren’t marine biologists to the incredible creatures that live in the sea. People learn to love and value and then protect creatures that are real to them.

    So from a conservation standpoint, I think the rather depressing reality of a few dolphins/orcas/sharks living in captivity serves the higher purpose of educating people and protecting the whole species. Given the advances of technology, I think a lot can be done with high definition underwater cameras and the life, but nothing replaces seeing the real thing.

    I have no opinion on sea mammal shows. The closest I’ve ever been to one was a childhood trip to Texas in which there was a swimming pig. I don’t remember being impressed.

    1. I agree with needing to see animals “in the flesh” to some extent, but not the extreme detriment of the animal. I’m sure there are better ways to do this for research and conservation than Sea World, which is the big offender.

      Also, where do I see this swimming pig show you speak of? Hahaha

  3. I am way too emotional to handle watching those documentaries/films. Food Inc. was overwhelming enough for me, now I eat organic meat/foods every possible chance I can get. I know it can’t be good, I pretty much avoid any animal type of entertainment anyways. My fiance’ and I got into a debate (argument) about why I refused to go to the circus with him and some friends.

  4. Technically, you could replace the words “marine mammals” with “horses” and everything in this post would still apply. You said, “hey, maybe we shouldn’t put animals that are used to an entire ocean into a tank”… we could also say “hey, maybe we shouldn’t put animals that are used to an entire prairie into a 12×12 stall and 1/2 acre pasture.” Horses are killed for entertainment purposes too and we all still love them, own them, and show them. Even though we know a lot of the horses are mistreated in a variety of ways, we still tune in to watch the Rolex.

    I personally don’t have an issue with it. I saw the movie Blackfish a couple times, and it was an eye opener, but I swam with dolphins on my honeymoon and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I loved being able to get so close to them and it gave me an even better appreciation for them. I don’t agree with all the things that are done to marine mammals in captivity, but that holds true for most animals that are kept captive for our personal enjoyment.

    1. I think the key difference for me and the hole in your argument (in my opinion, of course your argument is vaild!) is that horses are domesticated animals and Orcas are not. One species has had hundreds of years interacting and developing alongside humans. A natural environment for the modern horse IS being in a barn/pasture.

      1. This is very true! Although we do go out and round up mustangs every so often…. but I get what you’re saying.

        I remember being so in love with Shamu when I was a child. 🙂

      2. I was thinking the same thing as In2Paints, how is that any different from bringing wild mustangs into domesticated homes and training them. I’ve never really thought very long and hard about either. In VA we do a pony round up each year (which is very human and none are hurt in the process) and this is done to keep the pony population from in-breeding (as much as possible of course). So from that standpoint I fully understand why it’s important to remove them from the wild. I also understand that it can be important in order to keep the populations from getting to large and taking over in some areas. However, to remove them from the wild just because and with no better reason then to entertain people, I just don’t know I’m for. I feel like if you want to see them that bad then you should go see them in the wild. I haven’t done enough research or seen any of these movies to understand the full picture when it comes to captive marine animals but I will say I’m have no desire to go to sea world because I think it is obvious how unhappy some of the animals are. It’s cool to see them up close but not at the expense of their happiness.

      3. Totally agree. Domestic animals (aka the modern sporthorse) were developed in harmony with man and are centuries away from any ability to survive on their own. Even mustangs aren’t “wild” horses–they’re just feral. Domestic animals ranging free for the time being. There’s only one true “wild” horse left, as I recall, and they roam the asian steppes, yes?

        1. Yeah, I don’t buy the ‘mustangs are wild’ argument because mustangs started from domesticated horses getting loose and figuring out how to survive. I believe the Prezwalskis (know I am not spelling that right!) is the only ‘wild’ horse left.

  5. Keeping highly intelligent creatures in captivity (for human gain) is wrong. Orca, dolphin, elephant, ape, bear et al are robbed of a chance for a good life – and they know it.

  6. One of my majors in college was Japanese. I took a lot of culture classes. One of those classes required me to watch the Cove and to research and read about the Japanese perspective. I also lived in Japan for 9 months and asked several natives about their opinions. The Cove is a blatant piece of propaganda. I could get into all of the details here, but I won’t because it is too large of a debate for a blogger forum. What I will say is that it boils down to perspective: Most Japanese do not consume dolphin or whale meat. The basic core belief Japanese people hold is that all life is precious. So they are guilty of betraying this ideal when consuming any sort of meat. So why is the hunting/consumption of dolphin meat any different from the consumption/mass murder of cows/chickens/lamb/etc etc? Aside from that, as is custom for all propaganda movies, The Cove leaves out a lot of details in regards to how they got their information – the trespassing, the illegal bugging, the harassment of the Japanese people, what actually happens to the meat, the fact that the dolphins shown are not endangered whatsoever, and that this occurs in one small place, not on a mass scale. Very similar to Koreans eating dog – it’s outdated. It still occurs, but it is very, very far from the norm.

    I know I’m a bit off topic here, but as someone who lived and breathed the culture, I get a little defensive. I don’t condone the method in which the dolphins are killed (which is also now outdated in terms of what is shown in the movie), but I personally don’t condemn the killing either. As for cruelty towards captured animals, etc – that happens everywhere. Seriously. I’m sure it happens in America in greater frequencies just because of the massive numbers of animals in captivity. Just because it’s not on video, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

    I don’t are for wild animals in captivity, but I recognize that a lot of them are rescues that wouldn’t survive out in the wild. Is that a good excuse for keeping them wrapped up in a tiny aquarium? Probably not, but it justification enough for some, which is why the practice continues.

    1. I agree, good to hear the other side! I think all of the animal rights films are heavily slanted one way or the other. I don’t doubt some of their methods were illegal and that they don’t show the full side of things for the Japanese.

      I still don’t agree with keeping dolphins/whales in captivity though, but I totally get what you’re saying.

  7. I watched The Cove a few years ago and was horrified by what I saw, but in a way, not surprised. More recently, I watched Blackfish and it really tugged at my heart-strings. I don’t understand the benefit people get from cooping up these intelligent creatures (same goes for Zoo and Circus animals). Undomesticated animals do not belong behind prison bars – they belong out in the wild to live out a long, well-deserved life.

    I used to go to Zoos and Circuses, but after age 12/13, I stopped wanting to go. It wasn’t fun anymore when I could actually read the animal’s expressions.

    1. I will still go to Zoos and LOVE them, but I’m pretty picky. I will only go to a public/government funded zoo OR a private zoo that is rescue. Our Austin zoo is 100% rescued animals, and I just love it 🙂

  8. I thought Blackfish was incredibly well done and very moving. I’m all about letting animals live as close to wild as we can, only keeping them confined as needed for their own safety or in some extreme conservation cases. That is unless the animal is domesticated. Domesticated animals like dogs and horses are a different thing altogether. Though, horses need the turnout time and space to stay healthy and sound, and dogs need exercise to keep from nervously eating your couch.

  9. I think that keeping any animal in a situation that is detrimental to its mental or physical health is not a good idea. That includes pets, food animals, or wild animals. There are some exceptions – if the animal is injured and cannot be returned to its natural habitat; if there are so few animals left in the wild that they are kept in captivity for the purpose of saving the species, etc. If the animal must be kept in captivity, then having a living situation that provides it with both mental and physical stimulus – that is to say, “a good life” – is very important to me. Of course, determining what “a good life” means is subjective, but for me it means that they get appropriate food, housing suitable to their size and natural living conditions, and appropriate interaction with others of their own kind. I don’t agree with keeping a chicken in a battery cage, a horse isolated in a box stall 24×7, or an orca in a tank. On the other hand, I have no problem eating pastured chickens like ours, or horses being kept and ridden. I’m only a little conflicted, lol!

    And dangit, where did this soap box come from? 😉

  10. I think I`ve mentioned before that we can see the orcas swimming past our house now and then…they`re incredible and just watching them do their thing out there makes me hate that anyone would try to keep them captive. They swim such huge distances and have such an obvious social structure it just seems incredibly cruel. I think the locals here are pretty much unanimously against it – they have been phasing out the captive animals in Vancouver for years now and I think only have rescue type ones left that they bring in. Of course that opens a new debate for them as to whether they are going to allow the captive animals that are there and cannot be released to breed 🙁 I think the majority are way against that, but the staff biologists argue it would be good for science.

  11. I have seen clips from both films, and can’t stomach watching for more than a few minutes. I have very strong, very ambivalent feelings about wild animals in captivity–does the captivity help or hinder conservation efforts (which I do think are worthwhile)? There is a huge grey area here for me and I don’t think there will ever be one easy clear answer.

  12. I think perspective really, really matters on this one.
    1 -Horses are domesticated today because at some point, wild horses were restrained against their will. So, it’s not as far off as it seems on the surface.
    2 – if you’ve ever been around the folks who manage the daily care of the marine mammals in these shows (and I have a good friend who is one, which prob affects my view of it), for the most part they LOVE these animals – with all the passion of a 6 year old as you so aptly put it. They are aware of the mental and emotional challenges of their environment and so their best to offset it, constantly learning and tweaking and fighting for funding to do it better.
    3 – While in theory, I agree that there are better ways than captivity to educate the masses – it rarely holds true on a wide scale. Zoos and aquariums work because the average person is so far removed from the plight of wild animals of every kind that there is zero to no motivation to invest in the problem. We have a hard enough time getting the masses to invest in their neighborhood schools – whales living in the middle of the pacific ocean that they never see don’t even touch the consciousness.
    So, should there be oversight and regulation? Hell to the yes.
    Should we brand them all commercialized animal abusers? Not at all.
    Obviously. IMO 😉

    1. I have no doubt that the caretakers love the animals. It can’t be an easy job, and I’m sure is a labor of love kind of situation. I definitely don’t consider them animal abusers by any means, but I still don’t agree with the fundamental idea of keeping whales/dolphins in captivity.

  13. I watched Blackfish a couple of times and vowed to never go to Sea World again or our local small scale place. It really upset me. I also don’t like zoos. Even more disturbing are the photos that come across my social media of friends who hunt lions and zebras, etc in Africa. I just can’t…

  14. Great conversation on a home sick day:) I believe in turning horses out in herds just as our domestic horses were intended to be. I believe in keeping them furry and letting them play together without getting tangled up in a blanket. I think a horses temp of 101 and a thick furry coat make them most comfortable in all weather except most Nordic extremes. I think when people leave blankets on and the temp goes above 45 it is cruel. I think horses should go out way more than staying in their 12 x 12 stall. I say this because we must look at ourselves in how we keep our own. What I think is cruel, is someone else s horse show requirement. If I choose to play with the big boys ie “A” shows I will conform reluctantly for that period of time. I know I have to conform or throw my money away. But at the recent indoor schooling show our fuzzy horses placed very well and I did not have to change their lives to perform for one weekend. I will have to really look at both sides of the sea mammal debate to throw my opinion in on this one. As a horse person of 51 years I have definitely looked at the whole show industry and what it does to our management of an animal that will choose freedom any time it is offered. But I do think the Orca debate has great parallel to what we accept every day in our quest to keep horses in their “performance” appearance. I love showing horses and I hope to balance my goals to achieve ribbons without compromising too much. In any industry there is always a “bad” example. How about the good? We visited a turtle sanctuary in South Padre last summer, donated a$100 because I was so impressed with their rescue efforts. Maybe we should look for those places that fill their cages/aquariums with destitute creatures and support them as we ogle over the magnificent chance to view them.

  15. Great post, fascinating comments! I have seen Blackfish but not The Cove, and I agree that major overhaul is needed. Personally I think that wild animals should not be bred in captivity the way the orcas are. The wild animals we keep in captivity should be just the ones that can’t survive in the wild or are protected. I believe that wild animal parks do a better job than zoos at providing animals space and natural habitats, while still allowing the public to see and learn about them. Likewise our society should move away from Sea Worlds and towards marine animal sanctuaries. They don’t need to jump and flip to capture our hearts. Plus, let’s not forget that commercial whale watching does exist – it’s really cool to see the wild ones in their habitat.

  16. Oh, this is a hard topic. I too wanted to be an orca trainer when I was little. I really really did. I love love love going to aquariums and seeing all of the wonderful mammals and fish up close, as I feel that it would be the only time likely to happen. But I soooooooo hate how many of these wonderful captive creatures are kept and treated. I have watched both films, and they were certainly haunting. So, I am torn. If there were any way to improve living conditions to an almost impossible level, then maybe I would be more ok with it. I have a large fascination with sharks and often wonder how their captive environment effects them as well.

  17. I could not stomach The Cove and I ultimately refused to watch Blackfish after reading several reports at the time about how the movie makers had completely distorted the facts of what actually happened. I don’t really have an opinion about the movie since I didn’t watch it, but it was interesting to read both points of view at the time. It was upsetting to me that the public began reaming SeaWorld, forgetting about other captive animals in far more dire situations, like Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium. SeaWorld also does a lot of good, like their program for rehabilitating injured manatees and releasing them back into the wild.

    I don’t condone keeping wild animals in captivity. But I also don’t condone releasing into the wild an animal that has been raised in captivity who is not equipped anymore with the ability to survive in the wild. A lion that was raised in a zoo as a cub is not going to know how to behave appropriately in a wild lion pride and is not going to know how to hunt and kill its prey. I agree with others who have commented on keeping some wild animals in captivity as a way to educate the general public. It also allows the vets and researchers that work with them to understand some of the behaviors that don’t change in captivity, which in turn also helps educate the general public. As long as those animals in captivity can have other animals to socialize with, they are not mistreated, and are in an environment that is as natural as possible (I’m thinking the way Busch Gardens keeps their animals vs a zoo that keeps their animals in cages) I am not terribly against this.

    One of my professors in vet tech school was a veterinarian who had started out as a zoo vet. A lot of vets and techs want to work with zoo animals because it’s a rare opportunity to work with these species. Her anecdote was fascinating to me: she eventually got out of zoo animal medicine because it was boring. Which was the last thing any of us expected to hear. Why was it boring? Because at a good zoo, most of the animals will be healthy most of the time. The vets are just doing preventive care, for which the animals are usually trained. The same holds true for places like SeaWorld that keep marine animals in captivity. I have worked with vet techs that had the opportunity of working at marine animal sanctuaries (one worked in PR, the other in the Florida Keys), and they confirmed this.

    So I guess my ultimate opinion is that, as long as the animals are provided with social and environmental enrichment, adequate space to move (not cooped up in a tiny cage), are provided with diets appropriate for their species (incorrect housekeeping and diet are the #1 cause of disease and death of exotics: animals like snakes, iguanas, sugar gliders, etc, which technically are not really domesticated either but are kept as pets), are handled appropriately and not abused…I’m not that against it. Especially if those animals were born in captivity already, which is often the case.

    This is a really great article on the whole marine mammal in captivity issue:
    The title seems biased but the article in fact is not; it presents some very interesting points from both points of view.

  18. I get the issues with keeping those animals in captivity. And those circumstances need to either stop or improve dramatically. That being said I struggle with the fact that so many people are outraged about Blackfish, but they still eat meat and drink milk. The conditions those animals are kept in and the way they are treated, beyond the environmental issues and sanitary issues, is appalling. I don’t think good living conditions and dignity are to be selectively handed out to some living creatures and not others. I just hope this conversation about treatment of animals becomes broad and helps protect abused pets, poorly treated meat animals, and wild animals kept in captivity.

  19. This is an interesting topic, as a kid I personally loved going to the zoo’s or the safari parks here in the UK as that was the closest that I got to see these amazing animals, however as I got older I started to wonder is it fair to keep any wild animal in captivity, i still love going to the zoo but every time i go theres this one Amur Leopard that’s gorgeous but is also clearly 100% always frustrated.

    As for dolphins and whales I have never seen a dolphin or whale in person either in captivity or in the wild I have always said I would love to swim with dolphins though! But again I also don’t personally agree with keeping such large animals in captivity in my mind they were given the whole ocean to roam free and who are we to stop them from doing that, plus are they really happy in captivity?

    I watched the film Andre all the time as a kid i mean it was my all time favourite film about a seal. The seal chose to be in captivity all winter where it was safe then would make the massive swim back to where it felt was home in the summer, that was based on a true story so maybe it’s just down to the animal?

  20. While documentaries for the most part are really technically only one opinion’s agenda, like Blackfish and The Cove, in this case they have A LOT of REALLY valid points. Yes, Seaworld can and does give lots of good veterinary care and food to the animals, stuff that Blackfish glosses overcompletely, BUT in the end the core argument is there. Should highly intelligent sentient beings with a sense of self be locked up and made to entertain in order to make a dollar? Absolutely NOT.
    (As an aside, giving food and veterinary care does not actually mean quality of life. Lots of show horses locked in stalls 24/7, with no turnout and no equine interaction, ridden in horribly abusive ways, but they are fed well and get looked after by a vet. NOT quality of life.)

  21. I have watched both and even made my mom watch Blackfish with me for a second time. That documentary is probably one of the most moving things I have ever watched. Makes me so sad for all the animals stuck in tiny boxes 🙁

  22. Obviously I’m catching up on your posts on this fine Saturday morning! So I’m a little behind the times. I haven’t seen The Cove, but I have seen Blackfish, and it made me sick. I also loved Seaworld as a child, but I’ll never go back. Does it make me feel an eency bit like a hypocrite with my horse in a pen? Sort of. But my horse COULD NOT survive without human intervention. I also treat him humanely and with lots of love. I disagree with some of the arguments above that because animal cruelty/abuse happens everywhere we shouldn’t mind as much, or we shouldn’t take so much notice of one animal’s plight. IMO no animal cruelty should be allowable, and the only way to keep it from happening is by exposing stuff like this, and working on it, slowly but surely.

  23. Very interesting ethics series that you have going here.

    Your survive data is not all over the map. Your readers are more than 80% omnivorous, or omnivores really like taking surveys. 😉

    I highly recommend the book Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin. It is insightful, balanced, and scientific. Temple Grandin writes about her personal experiences working to improve animal welfare. There are ways to keep large animals, such as polar bears, that gives them a “good” captive life, but this is close to impossible if the animal was born and raised in the wild.

    I went to sea world once as a twenty something. I saw a gigantic male orca perform and I was moved to tears as soon as he entered the tank. I could not get over how huge he was, his power and speed, and how intelligent he must have been to work with the tiny humans.

    I visited the dolphins that you could feed and they seemed incredibly angry. It was not a magical experience.

    Ten years later I saw wild dolphins from a boat in Cape May, NJ. The were hundreds of them. They were incredibly playful and carefree. The Captain told us that captive dolphins rarely survive past age five, while wild dolphins can live past their thirties.

    My conclusion is that dolphins should not be in captivity. Visit them in the wild. That is truly wonderful.

    Orcas are calculating, organized hunters. They strategize and synchronize and celebrate their kills. I saw a PBS program recently. The orcas are having a killing spree in the northern oceans because the sea ice is melting, which provides hiding places for prey animals. The orca pods can subdue adult female right whales and kill their calves. The researchers tagged a couple dozen orcas and the TV program followed them until they found a narwhal nursery. The orcas killed 100 narwhal by trapping them against the shore. Orcas are gorgeous and terrifying. They belong in the ocean.

  24. I agree %100. I also am not a fan of zoos and although I will go sometimes (last time was 2009 in Edinburgh) I really really hate animals in captivity.

    You simply can not compare a horse in a stall to an animal at the zoo. There are soooo many reasons I am not even gong to attempt to explain why these are not comparable.

    A life in captivity is a life of hell for marine animals. I also suggest you watch the special that was done on the animals at Marine Land in Niagara Falls last year, undercover by one of their workers. Its absolutely disgusting. I still cry at night sometimes thinking about those poor animals.

  25. I know that I am totally late posting here, but I felt that I had to comment. I am totally against killer whales in captivity . This is not because of any real knowledge of their treatment in captivity. It is because I live in the PNW and in fifth grade the reporter who covered the Penn Cove orca capture came and talked about the penning and bodies stuffed with rocks that washed up on the beach later (Wallie Funk, he was the grandfather of one of my classmates). This was the 1970, but I can’t imagine much has changed.

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