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A dolphin’s smile – are aquariums ethical?

Posted by on February 22, 2013

Image of a mother and baby dolphin – courtesy of The Dolphin Project Press Room

by Natasha Neill, Executive Officer at the Society of Biology.

The latest issue of The Biologist included an article on William Alford Lloyd, the man who brought aquariums to Britain. Aquariums and zoos can be amazing environments where lifelong passions are born, but their popularity in some regions has spawned institutions with animals obtained through questionable means. Is the cost these animals pay worth it?

Lloyd established himself as an expert in aquatic management, working in the 19th Century to develop ‘closed system methods’ used to maintain multiple aquariums. Although his work included observations on smaller aquatic inhabitants – seaweeds , corals and fishes – upon reading the article I found myself considering current practice and what the continuing rise in popularity of zoos and aquariums might mean.

Over a year ago, I watched “The Cove”, an award winning documentary produced by The Oceanic Preservation Society. I was shocked by what I saw; the film is unflinching in its portrayal of the hunting of dolphins in Taiji, Japan and raises questions as to the effects of popularising animals that aren’t easily accessible to us.

After working on Flipper training dolphins, Ric O’Barry now dedicates his time to publicising the ‘dolphin drive’ in Taiji and being an advocate for dolphins across the world. The film shows schools of dolphins arriving into in the bay, the ‘prettiest’ of these animals are then selected for dolphinariums for entertainment. The rest are then slaughtered; the sight of the cove stained with blood is one that will stay with me forever.

Aquariums that focus on animal rehabilitation do, in my opinion, serve a great purpose. My favourite example of this is Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, which rescues animals that are sick or injured, to release into the wild after rehabilitation, or care for permanently if release is not possible. Their most famous ambassador is Winter; a dolphin who now swims with a prosthetic tail after losing hers at a young age in a crab trap.  In addition to rehabilitation, aquariums can also play an important role in conserving species.

Questions raised about dolphins carry across all popular exotic species; this issue of The Biologist also looks at poaching in Mozambique and previous articles have focused on the exotic pet trade (August 2012). As animals become increasing popular, we enter a viscous circle of inadvertently increasing their rarity. Seeing an animal in their natural habitat is a dream of many; but as they, and their habitat become scarcer, zoos and aquariums are the most accessible way to view these beautiful creatures.

Are zoos a worthwhile institution that inspire the next generation of biologists, or should we be aiming to preserve the natural lifestyle of these creatures by exclusion of all else?

Members of the Society of Biology can access The Biologist by logging into mySociety.

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