Friday, June 10, 2011

Swimming in Sorrow: The Story Behind the Captive Dolphin Breeding Program in the U.S.

* In loving memory of Tique's calf, who died on June 10, 2011, at the Shedd Aquarium in Illinois.  She was six days old.  Also in loving memory of Nova's calf, who died on June 23, 2011, at the Indianapolis Zoo.  He was twenty days old.

Nova and new calf 2011
Photo by: Mike Crowther

Probably the most stressful and anxiety-provoking act in human existence is the separation of a woman from her newborn infant. The response to this, which humans share with most of the animal kingdom, is an overwhelming combination of panic, rage, and distress.  (Ruskin in Horchler and Morris, 1994)

When a mother loses a child, the psychological impact can exact a toll that goes well beyond grief and into a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, clinical depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   A recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that these symptoms can last for years - even following the birth of a healthy child. (Blackmore, E.R., Cote-Arsenault, D., Tang, W., Glover, V., Evans, J., Golding, J., and O’Connor, T.G., 2011)
In his 2007 book, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Frontier, Thomas White proposed that dolphins be considered as “non-human persons”.  White and other researchers describe these marine mammals as highly intelligent, self-conscious, unique individuals with personalities, memories and a sense of self. They are also vulnerable to pain and suffering and experience emotions we know as fear, dread and grief.  This notion of dolphins experiencing grief is poignantly documented in a 2008 you tube video of a wild mother dolphin carrying her dead baby with her in Laguna Madre Bay, South Padre, Texas: 

Captive dolphins also exhibit grief reactions to the loss of a child.  In February  2000, the Chicago Tribune reported:
Like any desperate mom, Tapeko made every attempt to save her child.  In a tank that Brookfield Zoo officials had isolated for the mother and baby, the 17-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin patiently stayed with her calf late Saturday, following it up to the surface when it needed to breathe more frequently and slowing down when the newborn fell out of her "slipstream," a formation in which the calf is kept at its mother's side by a current of water.  After 45 minutes, the calf sank to the bottom of the tank and rolled onto its side. Tapeko swam after it, lifting the baby with her snout and bringing it to the surface, where she handed it over to trainers. She then watched at the deck as they tried to revive the 12-day-old dolphin by breathing into the blowhole atop its head, in a technique similar to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and performing chest compressions.  But the mom's and zookeepers' best efforts failed: Brookfield Zoo's newest baby dolphin died at 12:15 a.m. Sunday. 
Since 1992, wild caught Tapeko has witnessed the deaths of four of her six children.  She lost calves in 1992, 2000, and 2001.  Daughter Kaylee died in 2009 at the age of 15 due to a tear in her stomach.
The infant mortality rate among captive dolphins is extraordinarily high, but this seems to have little impact on captive breeding practices.  If a mother loses a child, she is just impregnated once again.  A review of the website  uncovers the excessive nature of dolphin breeding programs in zoos and aquariums across the United States.  At the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Illinois, Tique, a white-sided dolphin has lost three calves since 1995.  Her most recent calf, a female born on June 3, 2011, died yesterday after struggling to nurse.  At the Indianapolis Zoo, Nova, a bottlenose dolphin who was taken from the wild in 1988, has had eight pregnancies since  1993.  Six of her calves have died.  Two are living, including Kalei and one also born on June 3, 2011.  Likewise, at SeaWorld San Antonio, bottlenose dolphin Yoyo has lost five calves since 1998 and has no living offspring.  At the Miami Seaquarium, Cathi, a wild caught bottlenose dolphin, has lost five calves since 1976.  She has three living offspring:  Samantha, Ripley and Abaco.  The list goes on and on and on.  Female dolphins in aquariums are used like brood bitches in puppy mills.  Although their surviving calves aren’t sold to pet shops in the manner that puppies are, they are in a manner of speaking, sold into slavery.  These dolphins will never know the sheer joy of swimming in the open sea as they will live out their lives in captivity.
The captive breeding program (a.k.a. stud service) at several United States aquariums literally involves transporting male studs from aquarium to aquarium to impregnate female dolphins.  The practice is described in the June 2010 issue of the National Aquarium Blog as the facility bid farewell to Chinook, a stud who had been on “breeding loan” for three years:
Chinook was loaded into a specially made transport carrier and taken by truck to the airport. He was flown to Chicago with an Aquarium vet and trainer by his side. Upon arrival at Brookfield, he looked great and began to eat fish right away.  We heard that he is already showing interest in the female dolphins at Brookfield Zoo!
As part of a dolphin breeding consortium, we work with seven other zoos/aquariums to cooperatively manage and breed our dolphins.  Male dolphins are commonly moved from place to place to breed with different female groups.
With the wonders of modern science, some dolphin moms don’t even get the luxury of courtship, but rather are artificially inseminated.  In 2005, SeaWorld San Diego proudly announced that it had successfully selected the gender of a calf via artificial insemination.  The technology allowing the gender selection was developed by a company called XY Inc.  Tom Gilligan, a representative of the company, was quoted in a Reuter’s article describing the birth as “a real breakthrough that would lessen the need for new captures to vary the gene pool of captive marine mammals.”  At Save Misty the Dolphin, we wonder if it is really a breakthrough, or if it is just bad science that completely fails to consider the mental and emotional impact of captive breeding on the mother dolphins?  It appears that captive breeding, either via natural or artificial means, is largely unregulated.  Inquiries by our team to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums pointed us to individual facilities.  Calls to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), charged with implementing the Animal Welfare Act, directed us to the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Calls to the National Marine Fisheries Service sent us back to APHIS.  That being the case, there seem to be no protections in place specific to the wellbeing of captive mother dolphins used in breeding programs.  The reproductive future of these animals relies solely on the whims of the captive facilities, the very same facilities that profit from “showing” captive dolphins.
Ric O’Barry, former dolphin trainer turned activist and star of  the Academy-Award winning documentary, The Cove refers to the range of mental health problems demonstrated by captive dolphins as “captive dolphin depression syndrome”.  They may perform for the crowd, but outside of the show arena, they hover listlessly in small concrete tanks.  In the worst cases, some appear catatonic.  We wonder how many of these dolphins with captive dolphin syndrome are mothers who have experienced the loss of one or more children?  Perhaps the “captive dolphin depression syndrome” concept needs to be expanded to cover postpartum depression and complicated grief?  Perhaps it is simply time for the captive breeding program, and all captivity for that matter, to end!


  1. What can we do? This is absolutely heart breaking. Why can't humans see the harm these aquariums are doing!!

  2. We must keep on shaking the Masses.... Wake Up People, and smell the death... By attending these entertainment events, and/or by doing nothing, you are part of the problem... :((

  3. What cruelty, get Greenpeace and tear that swimming-bassin down let mother and calf be together.
    Where ar all the wild rescue teams?

  4. There is a common perception that saltwater aquariums are more costlier than the freshwater Aquarium.Saltwater tanks tends to take additional equipment as the freshwater doesn't.