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Frequently Asked Questions on Captvity

Over the short time my dolphin page has been up, I have recieved a lot of questions on dolphin captivity. So, for those people, I compiled this list of questions people have asked me and some questions sent to me by friends. Take a look at these questions and if you don't find the answer to what you're looking for, then go ahead and send me an e-mail with the question. I'll later post it in here. Thanks! =)

Q. -- How many dolphins are in captivity?

A. -- I don't know the exact number. From the estimates I have heard, there are approx. 2,500 to 3,000 dolphins in captivity world wide.

Q. -- What is the most common species of dolphin in captivity?

A. -- The Bottlenose Dolphin. (Remember "Flipper"?)

Q. -- How many dolphins have been captured from the wild?

A. -- Again, I don't know the exact number, but I have heard estimates from 5,000 to 10,000. I don't think anyone knows for sure.

Q. -- How many dolphins have been born in captivity?

A. -- In the U.S., about 50% of the captive bottlenose dolphin populations have been born in captivity. That percentage is much smaller in other countries.

Q. -- Do captive born dolphins survive well?

A. -- It depends on the species. Captive born bottlenose dolphins do fairly well, with a survival rate of about 65%. However, other species of dolphins do not breed well in captivity. For example, there is a total of only 4 captive born pacific white-sided dolphins surviving today. In 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that 1/3 of all captive born dolphins do not survive.

Q. -- Why do captive dolphins repeat the same behaviours, like bobbing their heads up and down?

A. -- Most of the repeated motions made by captive dolphins are learned behaviours. The head bobbing motion is a behaviour learned from begging for fish from the trainer. The dolphin usually makes the motion because it is excited, but because the trainer rewards the dolphin with fish after it shows the motion, the dolphin learns to repeat the motion and often does it to visitors who have no fish.

Q. -- Can captive dolphins be returned to the wild?

A. -- Yes. Dolphins are very adaptable and can be re-taught the necessary behaviours in order to survive. The success depends on the animal, but there have been many successful releases with 26 out of 29 captive dolphins released back into the wild being deemed "successful" after followup.

Q. -- Can captive born dolphins be released into the wild?

A. -- In a word - No. The whole process of reintroduction is based on the premise that a dolphin can be readapted to an environment that it once was from. Captive born dolphins have never known the skills needed to survive in the wild and they have no natural environment to return them to because they were never there. A few attempts have been tried at releasing captive born dolphins, but all have ended in failure.

Q. -- Do dolphins live shorter lives in captivity?

A. -- Again, it depends on the species. Today, only about 11% of bottlenose dolphins captured die within the first few months. However, if you combine those statistics with that of other species, approx 50% of dolphins captured die within the first few months. Some species do worse than others. From 1966 to 1985, at least 312 Pacific white-sided dolphins were captured for the public display industry. Less than 100 survived their first year in captivity.

For more information on survival rates in captivity, Click Here

Q. -- Do dolphins use their echolocation (sonar) in captivity?

A. -- From studies where hydrophones (underwater microphones) were placed in the water with the captive dolphins, they did use their echolocation. However, there has been no evidence to show that they actually use it for a purpose (such as navigation or locating objects). Researchers aren't sure why dolphins make echolocation clicks with no obvious purpose, now being called "blank clicks".

Q. -- How are dolphins in captivity trained?

A. -- The most popular method of training captive dolphins is called operent training. The definition for the word "operent" is: "designating conditioning in which the desired response, when it occurs, is reinforced by a stimulus." The stimulus (reward) is food. So basically, the dolphins do a trick and the trainer gives them food.

Q. -- Do the trainers not feed the dolphins if they don't do tricks?

A. -- For the most part, no. In most countries, there are regulations requiring that dolphins be fed even if they don't perform. However, in countries such as China where no regulations exist, food deprovation as a method of training can and does occur.

Q. -- Wouldn't a dolphin's muscles become week if they didn't perform?

A. -- No. As long as there is stimuli, such as other dolphins and toys, and enough room is provided for the dolphin, they will exercise on their own. There is no research to suggest that non-performing captive dolphins lose muscle tone.

Q. -- How many Killer Whales (orcas) are in captivity?

A. -- There are 48 orcas alive in captivity around the world. (As of 09/14/2000)

Q. -- How many orcas have been born in captivity?

A. -- Of 56 known pregnancies, 39 were born alive in captivity. Of those, there are 21 captive born orcas still alive today. (As of 03/04/2000)

Q. -- How big does a dolphin's tank have to be?

A. -- In the U.S., a dolphin can be legally kept in tank demensions of 24x24x6. In some countries, there are no regulaions for tank size.

Q. -- How do aquariums get so much saltwater for their tanks?

A. -- Most aquariums and marine parks artifically salt the water, meaning they mix salt with freshwater. Some pump natural saltwater from the ocean to their facility, then filter it for use.

Q. -- Does the chlorine in a dolphin's tank disable or hurt it's echolocation (sonar)?

A. -- I don't believe there are any cases of chlorine in tanks affecting a dolphins' sonar. However, the chlorine can lead to various other problems that can cause the loss of sonar, such as ear infections that can cause deafness. Chlorine can also cause other illnesses, such as blindness.

Q. -- Can light bouncing off tank walls hurt their eyes?

A. -- Yes. Light reflecting off of tank walls has been known cause vision problems. I know of one dolphin who was blinded by light reflection in a "petting-pool" at Sea World. Usually, the problem is more common in tanks painted white. It can sometimes be solved by painting the tank a darker color, like blue.

Q. -- Why do some killer whales in captivity have their dorsal fins collapsed on one side?

A. -- Most scientists agree that gravity is the major factor in contibuting to the drooping dorsal fins. Orcas in the wild spend the majority of their time underwater, where it is believed that water pressure holds up the relatively thin cartlidge that makes up the orcas dorsal fin. In captivity, orcas spend much of their time at the surface of the water, where it is more likely that gravity will pull it down over time. Circular swimming patterns may also contribute to bending dorsal fins, where water pressure is greater on one side, causing it to lean in a direction associated with the orca's swimming pattern.

While about 1% of wild orcas observed have had irregularities to the extent seen in captive orcas, collapsed dorsal fins are almost exclusive to captive populations of orcas.

Those were all of the questions I have recieved. If you have a question that is not answered here, please send it to me!
Please E-mail your captivity question to me. Thanks!

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