Dolphins need a better habitat than the zoo can give them

Maggie Ryan Sandford
Maggie Ryan Sandford: If there's one thing research on dolphins in captivity has taught us, it's that they are stressed.
Courtesy of Maggie Ryan Sandford

Maggie Ryan Sandford is a science writer for mental_floss and

The world-renowned dolphin researcher who taught at my college offered his Marine Mammals class only once every four years. Why? Because my college is located in St. Paul, Minn., which — you know — has no ocean.

Our professor believed it was impossible to learn about marine mammal research without seeing it conducted, or to conduct that research anywhere but in the animals' natural habitat. So he included in the curriculum a trip to the Bahamas, where we could board real research ships and learn from real marine biologists. Eagerly, I signed up, thinking: What an opportunity. I'm finally getting the education I paid for.

But a few days into the term, we learned we wouldn't be going. Something about a tangle in the college bureaucracy. Instead of getting real research experience with wild dolphins, we were going to visit the dolphin exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo.

My professor spoke the words like a detainee forced to lie for his freedom.

That might sound overdramatic, but it's not. The difference between studying dolphins in the wild and visiting them at the zoo speaks directly to the argument over dolphin captivity.

Dolphins are highly intelligent. Studies increasingly suggest that they are at least as intelligent as chimpanzees — maybe more so. They recognize themselves in the mirror, which means that, scientifically speaking, they have a "sense of self." So it's absurd to think they could live healthy, fulfilling lives confined in a tank. Even more absurd, perhaps, is the notion that good science could be conducted on dolphins in such an environment.

Taijah the dolphin died last year at the Minnesota Zoo.
Photo for MPR courtesy of the Minnesota Zoo

If there's one thing research on dolphins in captivity has taught us, it's that they are stressed. (This also applies to orcas, which are actually big, black-and-white dolphins.) They consistently exhibit erratic behavior and inflict harm on themselves and their tank-mates — sometimes on their trainers. They suffer from unnatural afflictions like chlorine poisoning and stomach ulcers. It was complications from a stomach ulcer that killed Taijah, the juvenile dolphin who died last February. Five others died at the zoo in the five years before that, including seven-month-old Harley, who mistakenly jumped out of his tank and hit his head on the deck between the pools.

To be honest, I don't remember much about the dolphin show that we saw. There was the requisite ball-tossing and leaping for dead fish. But the trainers and researchers seemed knowledgeable and compassionate.

After the show, they let us come up to the tank and pet the dolphins' taut, gray skin. They described each one's unique personality. I remember staring deep into a dolphin's eye, searching for a sign of his feelings, of some longing for the faraway ocean. But a dolphin's facial structure doesn't allow for expression of emotion. That so-called "dolphin smile"? He always does that.

So no one really knows whether the zoo's surviving dolphins would smile at the news that the dolphin exibit will soon close. But I'm smiling.

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