Why Canada Got it Wrong: Bill S-203 (“Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act”) is Bad Policy Based on Bad Information

June 2019

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On June 10, 2019, the Canadian Parliament passed a bill to ban the public display of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in Canada. Groups opposed to zoos and aquariums had lobbied for this bill for several years, and finally convinced enough legislators that this would be good policy.

But is it?

Today, many people are concerned with the well-being of dolphins and other animals. That’s a good thing. We as a society should strive for high standards of animal welfare, and openly discuss ways of improving the well-being of animals in all parts of our lives. However, it is essential that these discussions be honest and factual in nature. This is especially crucial at the level of legislation, where the accuracy of such information has real-world consequences. Unfortunately, much of the information (or misinformation) about these animals in popularized narratives today comes from sources that are not scientifically current, objective, and/or accurate. And in the case of Bill S-203, the testimony that legislators heard included repeated instances of research about cetaceans in marine mammal facilities being blatantly omitted, misrepresented, and mischaracterized in the interest of influencing the outcome of this legislation.

It worked.

In the end, many well-meaning legislators made a far-reaching decision based on bad information. And because this misinformation campaign worked once, it is virtually guaranteed to be tried again in different jurisdictions around the world. Therefore, in the interest of better informing future legislation, here is a look at some of the misinformation provided,[1] along with the actual scientific information relevant to each issue.

(1) Research

A) Legislators were told that research in marine mammal facilities is of little importance for understanding cetaceans.

This is untrue. Instead:

  • The vast majority of basic information about dolphins' perception, physiology, and cognition has been discovered in research conducted at marine mammal facilities (e.g., echolocation and how it works,[2] diving physiology,[3] energetics,[4] gestation period,[5] hearing range,[6] signature whistles,[7] etc.).
  • Having close access to animals allows scientists to perform experiments and gather information that would otherwise be inaccessible. This basic information from studies in facilities directly informs scientists' interpretation of data from wild studies.
    • For example, once researchers understood that dolphin communication utilizes individually-specific signature whistles to maintain contact[8], they were then able to better understand the communication between dolphin mothers and calves during separations in the wild.[9]
    • See the attached Scientist Statement supporting the importance of research in marine mammal facilities, signed by 82 scientists worldwide. [Appendix A]

B) Legislators were told that research in marine mammal facilities is not relevant to wild animals or to conservation.

This is untrue. Research in marine mammal facilities positively impacts conservation efforts for wild cetaceans in at least three ways:

  • (i) Providing baseline information (e.g., typical respiration rates, metabolic rates, gestation length, hearing range and thresholds, etc.) necessary to inform conservation plans and practices.
    • For example, knowing belugas' hearing range and the frequency of newborn contact calls allows us to realize that communication between beluga mothers and calves can be drowned out by boat noise.[10] This has direct conservation implications for how increased boat traffic can affect beluga mortality in the wild.[11]
  • (ii) Documenting cetaceans' physiological and behavioral responses to environmental stressors such as sound and contaminants, to further inform population managers.[12]
  • (iii) Developing and testing techniques and tools for assessing cetacean health, which can then be used to assess wild and stranded animals.[13]

(2) Education

A) Legislators were told that no scientific evidence supports the idea that zoos and aquariums educate or influence people's conservation attitudes and behaviors.

This is not true. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that:

  • Experiencing live animals creates emotional connections.[14]
  • Such emotional connections increase conservation mindedness.[15]
  • Experiences with live animals at zoos and aquariums positively impact visitors' conservation-related attitudes, knowledge, and behavior.[16]
    • To take just a single example, before the dolphin-safe label was conceived, millions of dolphins were dying in tuna net fisheries. During this time, a group of students from Colorado visited a dolphin facility in the Florida Keys, where they met some dolphins and learned about the tuna issue. The students went back home, petitioned their entire school district, and got tuna banned from all lunchrooms. StarKist tuna company lists this as one of the peer pressure events that led to them to adopt dolphin-safe tuna practices and the label on their products.[17]

B) Legislators were told that alternative experiences such as whale-watching, wildlife films, and "a good coffee table book" are better methods of educating and inspiring conservation.

This claim is problematic on several levels:

  • There is no evidence that it’s true. To date, zero studies have compared which of these methods are most effective for educating and inspiring conservation. 
  • This is not an either/or situation.
    • Today, animal species are disappearing at an alarming rate due in large part to human impacts on the environment. We are in the middle of the Sixth Extinction.[18]
    • At the same time, children are becoming less and less connected to the very nature that we need to protect.[19]
    • For conservation purposes, the importance of finding every way possible to connect people with animals cannot be overstated.
  • It is unwise, and counter to the goal of conservation, to suggest that everyone should view cetaceans in the wild.
    • Studies have shown that commercial whale-watching often harms the wild whales that are being viewed, both through injuries and mortalities from collisions with the boats, as well as through causing behavioral changes that can impact biologically important behaviors such as feeding, resting, and reproduction.[20]
    • While responsible whale-watching on a controlled scale is possible, significantly increasing whale-watching tourism would increase boat traffic, noise, pollution, and stress on the very populations we are attempting to conserve.[21]

(3) Survival and Life Expectancy

Legislators were told that dolphins and killer whales in marine mammal facilities live shorter lives than they do in the wild.

This is not true.

  • Decades ago, the survival rates of dolphins and killer whales in facilities were lower than in the wild.[22]
  • However, survival rates have consistently and significantly increased over the years in marine mammal parks and aquariums.[23]
  • The most recent data show that:
    • The current survivorship of SeaWorld killer whales is not statistically different from that of any known wild killer whale population.[24]
    • Dolphins in zoos and aquariums today live as long or longer than dolphins in the wild.[25]

(4) Health

Legislators were told that cetaceans in facilities contract more illnesses than cetaceans in the wild, due to chronic stress on the animals' immune systems.

This is not true. Instead:

  • There are no scientific studies suggesting that dolphins in marine mammal facilities are more prone to disease than dolphins in the wild. In fact:
    • recent studies have shown that the immune systems of wild dolphins are much more challenged than the immune systems of dolphins in human care.[26]
  • There are no scientific studies suggesting that dolphins in marine mammal facilities are any more stressed than dolphins in the wild. In fact:
    • studies have shown that cortisol levels (i.e., the "stress hormone") of dolphins in marine mammal facilities are either very similar to, or lower than, cortisol levels of wild dolphins, depending on the sampling technique.[27]

(5) Space

Legislators were told that the space provided to cetaceans in marine mammal facilities is detrimental to the animals' welfare because it is significantly smaller than their home ranges in the wild.

This is misleading.

  • In the wild, the lifestyle of dolphins and whales requires a large amount of space so that the animals can hunt for food, relocate when new threats are presented, and so forth. Under human care, food sources and safety from predators are never a concern.
  • Therefore, as with all animals in human care situations (e.g., zoos, pets, etc.), the relevant animal welfare question is not about whether marine mammal facilities exactly duplicate the wild, but rather whether they can meet the animals' physical needs, in terms of exercise and stimulation.
  • Of course, sufficient space to meet the animals' needs is required. However, there are no data suggesting that cetaceans in zoological settings need extraordinary amounts of physical space to achieve that end.
    • The positive reinforcement training sessions that are standard for cetaceans ensure that these animals get plenty of physical and mental exercise.[28]
    • For megafauna like dolphins, “optimal space may be best defined by qualitative rather than quantitative variables” according to one of the foremost experts on animal welfare, Dr. Terry Maples.[29]
      • In other words, common features of cetacean zoological care such as cognitive and behavioral enrichment, and social stimulation, are more important to animal welfare than simply adding more space.[30]

(6) Thriving

Legislators were told that cetaceans cannot thrive in marine mammal facilities.

This, again, is simply not true.

  • Today, cetaceans at high-quality, accredited facilities live long and healthy lives. They receive high-quality food, veterinary care, exercise, and behavioral enrichment,[28]and their survival,[24], [25] health,[26]  stress levels,[27] etc., are the same as or better than in the wild. This is the evidence that is relevant to whether they can thrive in marine mammal facilities. They can, and they do.
  • However, not all marine mammal facilities worldwide are of high quality. And, like any animal, cetaceans do not thrive in facilities with substandard care. Improving animal welfare worldwide will necessarily require improving care at substandard facilities, and addressing specific problems when they arise.
  • The problem is that Bill S-203 was never about improving poor quality facilities, but about legislating all marine mammal facilities out of existence. Frankly, it was an attempted solution to the wrong problem altogether.

What about bias?

The skeptical reader might question whether my arguments may be biased because I conduct my research at a marine mammal facility. In an issue as politically charged as this one, this is an important consideration. By itself, having an opinion on a topic (in either direction) should not invalidate any researcher’s argument. However, potential bias should always be kept in mind. As such, I invite those evaluating these comments to examine each of my claims in detail, read the supporting studies I reference, and contact me for clarification or further explanation if needed. At the same time, please be sure to examine each of the opposing claims in similar detail, and read the supporting studies they referenced (or note when such references are conspicuously missing). Scientific scrutiny and discussion of each and every claim is critical in order to get the science right, which should be an essential goal on the path to constructing any legislation that will have real-world effects on real-world animals.


Kelly Jaakkola, Ph.D.
Director of Research, Dolphin Research Center

Chair, Scientific Advisory Committee of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums
 

Download Appendix A: Scientist Statement Supporting Research in Marine Mammal Facilities
 

REFERENCES

[1] https://sencanada.ca/en/committees/pofo/TranscriptsMinutes/42-1

[2] e.g., Kellogg, W. N. (1958). Echo ranging in the porpoise. Science, 128, 982-988.

Norris, K. S., Prescott, J. H., Asa-Dorian, P. V., & Perkins, P. (1961). An experimental demonstration of echolocation behavior in the porpoise, Tursiops truncatus (Montague). Biological Bulletin, 120, 163-176.

Au, W. W. L. (1993). The sonar of dolphins. New York: Springer-Verlag.

[3] e.g., Ridgway, S. H., & Howard, R. (1979). Dolphin lung collapse and intramuscular circulation during free diving: evidence from nitrogen washout. Science, 206(4423), 1182-1183.

Skrovan, R. C., Williams, T. M., Berry, P. S., Moore, P. W., & Davis, R. W. (1999). The diving physiology of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). II. Biomechanics and changes in buoyancy at depth. Journal of Experimental Biology, 202(20), 2749-2761.

Noren, S. R., Cuccurullo, V., & Williams, T. M. (2004). The development of diving bradycardia in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Journal of Comparative Physiology B, 174, 139-147.

[4] e.g., Williams, T. M., Friedl, W. A., & Haun, J. E. (1993). The physiology of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): Heart rate, metabolic rate and plasma lactate concentration during exercise. Journal of Experimental Biology, 179, 31-46.

Holt, M. M., Noren, D. P., Dunkin, R. C., & Williams, T. M. (2015). Vocal performance affects metabolic rate in dolphins: Implications for animals communicating in noisy environments. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 218, 1647-1654.

[5] e.g., Essapian, F. S. (1963). Observations on abnormalities of parturition in captive bottle-nosed dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, and concurrent behavior of other porpoises. Journal of Mammalogy, 44, 405-414.

Cornell, L. H., Asper, E. D., Antrim, J. E., Searles, S. S., Young, W. G., & Goff, T. (1987). Progress report: Results of a long-range captive breeding program for the bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus and Tursiops truncatus gilli. Zoo Biology, 6, 41-53.

Duffield, D. A., Odell, D. K., McBain, J. F., & Andrews, B. (1995). Killer whale (Orcinus orca) reproduction at Sea World. Zoo Biology, 14, 417-430.

[6] e.g., Hall, J. D., & Johnson, C. S. (1972). Auditory thresholds of a killer whale Orcinus orca Linnaeus. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 51(2B), 515-517.

Kellogg, W. N. (1953). Ultrasonic hearing in the porpoise, Tursiops truncatus. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 46, 446-450.

[7] e.g., Caldwell, M. C., & Caldwell, D. K. (1965). Individualized whistle contours in bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Nature, 207, 434-435.

Tyack, P. L. (1986). Whistle repertoires of two bottlenosed dolphins, Tursiops truncatus: Mimicry of signature whistles? Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 18, 251-257.

Janik, V. M., & Slater, P. J. B. (1998). Context-specific use suggests that bottlenose dolphin signature whistles are cohesion calls. Animal Behaviour, 56, 829-838.

[8] e.g., Caldwell, M. C., & Caldwell, D. K. (1965). Individualized whistle contours in bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Nature, 207, 434-435.

 Caldwell, M. C., & Caldwell, D. K. (1968). Vocalization of naïve captive dolphins in small groups. Science, 159, 1121-1123.

[9] Smolker, R. A., Mann, J., & Smuts, B. B. (1993). Use of signature whistles during separations and reunions by wild bottlenose dolphin mothers and infants. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 33, 393-402.

[10] Vergara, V., Michaud, R., & Barrett-Lennard, L. (2010). What can captive whales tell us about their wild counterparts? Identification, usage, and ontogeny of contact calls in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23, 278-309.

[11] e.g., http://digitaledition.chicagotribune.com/tribune/article_popover.aspx?guid=c849eedb-1743-4c01-875d-44c6739dcb7f

[12] See review in Houser, D. S., Finneran, J. J., & Ridgway, S. H. (2010). Research with Navy marine mammals benefits animal care, conservation, and biology. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23, 249-268.

[13] e.g., Dennison, S., Moore, M. J., Fahlman, A., Moore, K., Sharp, S., Harry, C. T., ... & Wells, R. S. (2012). Bubbles in live-stranded dolphins. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 279, 1396-1404.

Fair, P. A., Schaefer, A. M., Houser, D. S., Bossart, G. D., Romano, T. A., Champagne, C. D., ... & Reif, J. S. (2017). The environment as a driver of immune and endocrine responses in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). PLoS ONE, 12(5), e0176202.

Mann, D., Hill-Cook, M., Manire, C., Greenhow, D., Montie, E., Powell, J., ... & DiGiovanni Jr, R. (2010). Hearing loss in stranded odontocete dolphins and whales. PLoS ONE, 5(11), e13824.

Ruiz, C. L., Nollens, H. H., Venn-Watson, S., Green, L. G., Wells, R. S., Walsh, M. T., ... & Jacobson, E. R. (2009). Baseline circulating immunoglobulin G levels in managed collection and free-ranging bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Developmental & Comparative Immunology, 33(4), 449-455.

Schwacke, L. H., Smith, C. R., Townsend, F. I., Wells, R. S., Hart, L. B., Balmer, B. C., ... & Lamb, S. V. (2013). Health of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Environmental Science & Technology, 48, 93-103.

[14] e.g., Myers, O. E,. Saunders, C. D., & Birjulin, A. A. (2004). Emotional dimensions of watching zoo animals: An experience sampling study building on insights from psychology. Curator, 47, 299–321.

Bruni, C., Fraser, J., & Schultz, P. (2008). The value of zoo experiences for connecting people with nature. Visitor Studies, 11, 139–150.

Clayton, S., Fraser, J., & Saunders, C. D. (2009). Zoo experiences: Conversations, connections, and concern for animals. Zoo Biology, 28, 377–397.

[15] e.g., Skibins, J. C., & Powell, R. B. (2013). Conservation caring: Measuring the influence of zoo visitors' connection to wildlife on pro-conservation behaviors. Zoo Biology, 32, 528–540.

Powell, D. M., & Bullock, E. V. (2014). Evaluation of factors affecting emotional responses in zoo visitors and the impact of emotion on conservation mindedness. Anthrozoös, 27, 389–405.

[16] Miller, L. J., Zeigler-Hill, V., Mellen, J., Koeppel, J., Greer, T., & Kuczaj, S. (2013). Dolphin shows and interaction programs: Benefits for conservation education? Zoo Biology, 32, 45–53.

Skibins, J. C., & Powell, R. B. (2013). Conservation caring: Measuring the influence of zoo visitors' connection to wildlife on pro-conservation behaviors. Zoo Biology, 32, 528–540.

Moss, A., Jensen, E., & Gusset, M. (2014). Evaluating the contribution of zoos and aquariums to Aichi Biodiversity Target 1. Conservation Biology, 29, 537–544.

[17] http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/18/garden/how-youths-rallied-to-dolphins-cause.html

[18] Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. M. (2015). Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances, 1(5), e1400253.

[19] Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.

[20] See review in Parsons, E. C. M. (2012). The negative impacts of whale-watching. Journal of Marine Biology, Article ID 807294. doi:10.1155/2012/807294.

[21] e.g., de Vere, A. J., Lilley, M. K., & Frick, E. E. (2018). Anthropogenic impacts on the welfare of wild marine mammals. Aquatic Mammals, 44(2), 150-180.

[22] DeMaster, D. P., & Drevenak, J. K. (1988). Survivorship patterns in three species of captive cetaceans. Marine Mammal Science, 4, 297-311.

Duffield, D. A., & Wells, R. S. (1991). Bottlenose dolphins: Comparison of census data from dolphins in captivity with a wild population. Soundings, 16(2), 11-15.

Small, J., & Demaster, D. P. (1995). Survival of five species of captive marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science, 11, 209 - 226.

[23] Small, J., & Demaster, D. P. (1995). Survival of five species of captive marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science, 11, 209 - 226.

Innes, W.S. (2005). Survival rates of marine mammals in captivity: Temporal trends and institutional analysis. MS Thesis, Duke University.

Jett, J., & Ventre, J. (2015). Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival. Marine Mammal Science, 31, 1362-1377.

Robeck, T. R., Willis, K., Scarpuzzi, M. R., & O’Brien, J. K. (2015). Comparisons of life-history parameters between free-ranging and captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations for application toward species management. Journal of Mammalogy, 96,1055-1070.

Jaakkola, K., & Willis, K. (2019).  How long do dolphins live? Survival rates and life expectancies for bottlenose dolphins in zoological facilities vs. wild populations. Marine Mammal Science. doi: 10.1111/mms.12601

[24] Robeck, T. R., Willis, K., Scarpuzzi, M. R., & O’Brien, J. K. (2015). Comparisons of life-history parameters between free-ranging and captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations for application toward species management. Journal of Mammalogy, 96,1055-1070.

[25] Jaakkola, K., & Willis, K. (2019).  How long do dolphins live? Survival rates and life expectancies for bottlenose dolphins in zoological facilities vs. wild populations. Marine Mammal Science. doi: 10.1111/mms.12601.

https://youtu.be/YMViAQMvrJY

[26] Fair, P. A., Schaefer, A. M., Houser, D. S., Bossart, G. D., Romano, T. A., Champagne, C. D., ... & Reif, J. S. (2017). The environment as a driver of immune and endocrine responses in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). PLoS ONE, 12(5), e0176202.

Ruiz, C. L., Nollens, H. H., Venn-Watson, S., Green, L. G., Wells, R. S., Walsh, M. T., ... & Jacobson, E. R. (2009). Baseline circulating immunoglobulin G levels in managed collection and free-ranging bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Developmental & Comparative Immunology, 33(4), 449-455.

[27] See review in Proie, S. (2013). A systematic review of cortisol levels in wild and captive Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), killer whale, (Orcinus orca), and beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas). MA Thesis, Evergreen State College.

[28] e.g., Brando, S. I. (2010). Advances in husbandry training in marine mammal care programs. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23(4), 777-791.

[29] Maple, T. L., & Perdue, B. M. (2013). Zoo animal welfare. Heidelberg: Springer. (p. 78)

[30] Yamanishi, Y., & Hayashi, M. (2011). Assessing cognitive experiments on the welfare of captive chimpanzees by direct comparison of activity budgets between wild and captive chimpanzees. American Journal of Primatology, 73, 1231-1238.

Shepherdson, D., Lewis, K. D., Carlstead, K., Bauman, J., & Perrin, N. (2013). Individual and environmental factors associated with stereotypic behavior and fecal glucocorticoid metabolite levels in zoo housed polar bears. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 147, 268-277.

Maple, T. L., & Perdue, B. M. (2013). Zoo animal welfare. Heidelberg: Springer.


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