Featured Image Credit: Parc Asterix
Scientists near Paris have attempted to measure how dolphins at a marine park feel about the aspects of their lives in human care. In the first project looking into captivity from the animals’ point of view, the researchers assessed what activities the dolphins looked forward to most. What they found was that the dolphins looked forward to the interaction between familiar humans, essentially leading to the conclusion that a better bond between humans and animals leads to better welfare.
This study was part of a three-year project to measure dolphin welfare in human care. The study was published in the journal, Applied Animal Behavior Science. The lead researcher, Dr. Isabella Clegg, worked at Parc Asterix, a theme park with one of France’s largest dolphinariums. She designed experiments to decode dolphin behavior with the help of some colleagues at the University of Paris. These experiments looked into the differing physical postures that indicate how the animals were feeling.
She tested three activities: a trainer playing with the dolphins, adding toys to the pool, and leaving the animals by themselves. Dr. Clegg says, “We found a really interesting result- all dolphins look forward most to interacting with a familiar human.” They showed this anticipation by “spy hopping”, the action of peering above the surface and looking in the direction that the trainers would approach them. The dolphins also increased their levels of activity and spent much time at the edges of the pool.
“I do think it’s a valuable finding that dolphins in captivity potentially seek out contact with humans.” Dr. Schultz said. “And I think that finding can be applied to how we manage other charismatic, intelligent species. But just because a dolphin interacts with you doesn’t mean that it would choose that lifestyle if it was given a choice.”
In the more than 150 years since the first whales and dolphins were brought from the wild and into aquariums, scientists have learned a huge amount about their intelligence and complex social lives.
“I think the question of whether they should be in captivity is really important and we should be asking it at the moment,” Dr. Schultz says. “And it has two elements: are the animals in good welfare? And what is their purpose? And we have to look deeper into the animals’ behavior to understand how they’re feeling. But even if they are in good welfare, we need more research to ensure that their presence is really engaging people with conservation. If they’re just here for our entertainment, that can’t be justified.”
We also got some input from Jason N. Bruck, Ph. D. from Oklahoma State University who works in the Department of Integrative Biology. Here is what he had to say:
“While this study does not address animal ‘happiness’ in an overall sense, it highlights that dolphins can experience positive emotional responses to factors in their interspecies social environment, which flies in the face of arguments that these animals experience nothing but misery in captivity. This supports the observations of scientists who work with animals under human care that dolphins really do form interspecies bonds. This consideration must be a part of any discussion surrounding captive animal welfare and we should not just assume that we can take these animals and put them in the wild or in a sea pen, separated from their trainers and support teams and assume everything is going to be fine. Furthermore, while this study doesn’t address what these animals would prefer if given the choice between the wild and captivity, we know what previously freed animals like Keiko (from Free Willy) preferred. He sought contact with humans, which is why he found himself in a Norwegian Fishing Village with kids riding on his back rather than in a pod experiencing a “natural” life. This study contextualizes Keiko’s behavior.”
In conclusion, the fact is that the world needs interaction between humans and animals both on land and in water. It teaches us to care for them and their habitats at a time when pollution is destroying them.
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