The perceived high level of intelligence in dolphins often makes them the center of controversy, especially in relation to captivity. Recently, the activism spotlight has focused on the horrific practices in Japanese fishing town, Taiji, where pods of cetaceans, including pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins, are driven into a 'killing lagoon' for slaughter or collection by marine life facilities. This purported 'tradition' was featured in an Oscar winning documentary (which I haven't brought myself to watch--not enough Kleenex in this world...) several years ago called The Cove, and continues to make headlines (especially on social media like Twitter) as awareness increases.
The secondary goal of the Taiji hunts--collecting specimens for dolphinariums and theme parks--often brings the issue of captivity, in general, under scrutiny. While I personally do not condone the taking of any animals from the wild--except in extreme cases where the animal will otherwise perish--and I believe the practice to be quickly dying away, many equate all captive facilities with the Taiji methods. Many activists make the wild leap from speaking out against Taiji to boycotting responsible facilities such as SeaWorld (who, I should note, does a lot of good for wild animals through solid and widespread rescue and rehab efforts). In doing so, captive collections are unjustly brought under fire--and with dolphins specifically, the issue of interaction programs (such as swim-withs and touches) and shows are often cited as deplorable.
I am here to set the record straight.
A recent study published in Animal Welfare examined the effects of shows and interaction programs on 18 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in six facilities across the U.S. The study clearly indicated that these programs did not produce deleterious effects on the dolphins; in fact, the study found an increase in positive behaviors indicating interaction programs and shows are actually beneficial to captive dolphins. "The increases in behavioural diversity, variation in swimming style, activity levels and play behaviour following both types of programmes are likely a result of the complexity, unpredictability and choices afforded to the animals during these programmes." In other words, much like the findings in a similar study on giraffe feeding, these programs are enrichment opportunities for the dolphins.
Please note that the participating institutions are all accredited by the AZA, IMATA, and / or Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums--an important distinction indicating these facilities abide by the strictest of standards for responsible husbandry of the animals in their care. If you'd like to boycott facilities, I suggest you boycott those who do not meet these standards or refuse to comply.
If you'd like to read the study, please use the links above to request a copy from the publisher.