An argument, by pro-caps (pro-captives), that turns up time & time again on anti-captivity articles is that having an orca, or dolphin, in captivity is exactly the same as having a dog as a pet. They pointedly tell anti-caps how hypercritical they are to be disgusted by cetaceans in captivity whilst their dog lays at their feet. I find this argument not only uninformed but also an insult to good dog owners the world over. To treat a dog the way orca & dolphin are treated would result in said dog being removed from its owner due to unnecessary cruelty. Think I’m being overly simplistic? Let’s look at the FACTS…
Dogs were domesticated sometime between the years 30000 BC & 7000 BC. Their ancestors were wild, probably wolves, & over the centuries mankind has selectively bread them; removing their more wild traits, magnifying their compliant traits & physical features & making them the obedient domesticated animals they are today.
Orcas & dolphins are not domesticated animals. Many individuals currently in tanks were caught in the wild. The first captive orcas were taken during the 1960’s. There are probably three generations of captive bread orcas (grandmothers, mothers & calves). Even if facilities were selectively breeding out less predictable traits & breeding in more obedient traits (which they’re not as Tillikum has killed several times but has been used to sire many offspring) three generations alone would not achieve such a feat.
Training, performance & mental stimulus
Dogs require training & exercise, that’s a given. But what is the accepted frequency? Well that depends on the size of dog but on average, two to three walks a day of approximately 20 minutes is deemed enough outside activity to keep the animal healthy & mentally stimulated. Training for behaviour & tricks should be in short bursts of 5 to 30 minutes a couple of times a day. The rest of the day the dog gets to play, sleep & do its own thing.
Orcas in captivity have to do a lot of work. They can be working 365 days a year, eight hours a day. Hell, most humans get the weekend off plus 20+ days of vacation a year. Orcas don’t. They work day in, day out, trick after trick in a noisy auditorium.
Orcas require mental stimulus. An orca in the wild would get this from interacting with its pod-mates, hunting prey & investigating new things in its immediate environment. Much like a dog does when it’s taken out for a walk. Though, preferably, you would hope the dog’s owner won’t let it kill anything (the wolf is still in there).
For most captive orcas their sole mental enrichment comes from repeating tricks in shows &, if it’s lucky, physical contact with its trainer (though thanks to Tilikum’s revolt, this is not currently an option in most places). The level of stimulus an orca receives from performing these tricks doesn’t come close in variability to the amount of stimulus a wild orca, or a free roaming pooch, gets.
If a captive orca is REALLY lucky it may have tank mates. However, as quite often these are not natural family members the clash of personalities & following violence can end up doing more harm than good, mentally & physically. In large facilities the problem individuals can be isolated (which, for a social animal, is hardly ideal). In small facilities this is often not possible… creating more stress for the animal at the receiving end of the abuse.
The average wild wolf lifespan is 8 years. A captive wolf, away from the stresses of the wild can live up to 20 years. On average domesticated dogs live 12.8 years (averaged out for all breeds). Basically, captive wild wolves & domesticated dogs are a bit better off than their free-living brethren.
The average lifespan for orca is 50 years for a female (maximum can be 80-100 years) & 29 years for males (maximum can be 50-60 years). In captivity an orca is lucky to make it to its 20’s. Most die in their teens. This is an incredible decrease in life expectancy when compared to what age wild animals can live to.
Many pro-caps will point out that several captive orcas are reaching their average life expectancy. First off, these older animals are usually wild caught animals (Tilikum & Lolita to name two). Secondly they gloss over the large number of animals that died whilst young. Published scientific papers, in peer-reviewed journals, have shown that mortality rates in captive orcas (& their dolphin cousins) are actually higher than their wild counterparts. Wild born calves have a greater chance of survival living in a dangerous, wild environment than they do being born in captivity.
In the wild orcas can travel close to 200km a day & may dive to depths of 60m. In captivity orcas live in small, round, barren, concrete tanks. The minimum depth of these tanks is only required to be 3.6m. Sea World tanks are usually bigger, but at approximately 7-11m in depth these tanks are nowhere near close to natural conditions &, in the case of a male orcas (which can be 6-8m in length) that’s barely enough room to be vertical in, let alone dive a distance.
Captive orcas need to swim round & round their tanks to get enough exercise, which is why even a young orca will display signs of its fin flopping over. In the wild orcas swim straight & true for many kilometres, the ocean pushing evenly on either side of their fin. Swimming in circles in a tank will cause more pressure to be exerted on one side of the fin… causing a slow collapse.
Let us imagine there is a domestic dog being kept in a cage proportional to its size as a tank is to an orca. A featureless wire cage that it’s kept in, day after day &, like some Sea world tanks, it has no shelter from the blazing sun. The owner takes the top off the cage to teach the dog tricks (for several straight hours a day!) to keep it “stimulated”. If it gets a trick wrong, food is withheld until it gets it right. In all likelihood that dog would be rescued by a humane society & its owner charged on counts of cruelty & abuse, possibly imprisoned & definitely fined. The vast majority of dog owners would be abhorred at such treatment to a family pet. Their animals are regularly walked out in the open, in stimulating countryside, for miles at a time.
In gauging animal intelligence the Encephalization Quotient (EQ), or encephalization level, is generally used, which is a measure of relative brain size. It is a ratio between actual brain mass & predicted brain mass for an animal of a given size. This resulting ratio is thought to be a rough estimate of the intelligence of the animal. EQ gives the following result…
Bottlenose dolphin 4.14
As you can see, domestic dogs are nowhere near orca & dolphin in terms of intelligence. Even wild wolves are considered smarter than domesticated dogs. Furthermore, spindle cells (neurons that appear to play a central role in the development of intelligent behaviour) are only found in humans, the great apes, elephants & cetaceans (including orca & dolphins). When it comes to the development of higher-functioning intellect, domestic dogs don’t even get a look-in.
I hope this article goes someway to dispelling the pro-cap myth that having a captive orca is the same as having a pet dog. The differences in history, intelligence, physical requirements & treatment of the two species are worlds apart. Dogs, it would appear, may be dumber than captive cetaceans, but get treated a damn site better.