What is the best option for cetaceans housed in zoological parks?

Quote from the President:
“It is frustrating and tiring to see the ill-informed requests on the release of cetaceans under human care into the wild or putting them into marine sanctuaries, hence here is a full explanation of why it is impossible”.

The critics of the zoological parks are desperately trying to phase out keeping dolphins and orcas under human care, using smear campaigns without scientific grounds. This is not the consequence of a real concern about the welfare of the animals, nor an interest to improve their life in the zoological settings. This is simply the strategy of people and organizations that hate zoos and want to destroy them at any cost. When analyzing the options for cetaceans under human care, there are only these three alternatives:

  1. To be released in the sea.
  2. To be housed in a Marine Sanctuary.
  3. Continue living in modern dolphinaria.

We invite you to familiarize yourself with what each of these options entails.

Option 1: To be released in the sea:

• No organization can guarantee the survival, or even the welfare, of any cetacean released into the sea. There is no scientific information supporting such reintroductions, hence any attempt would put the animals at risk.
• The animals could not survive because they have no experience in catching their own food. Which means, without any doubt, that they would starve to death.
• There is no experience with cetaceans raised in zoo settings, except the terrible precedent of SugarLoaf Sanctuary, where Rick O’Barry released two dolphins with the disastrous consequences that one was dead after a few days and the other one rescued in very poor condition.
• From all the animals in human care in Europe approximately 66% are already born under human care and are all used to receive their food, their care and their enrichment.
• There is a risk of genetic pollution for the natural populations.
• Some scientists have also warned about the fact that reintroduced cetaceans could compete with the wild populations for resources, and that could be especially difficult in areas were the preys are being overexploited by the fisheries. This potentially can cause aggression and inter-specific conflicts, raising the pressure on the wild cetaceans.

Precisely to avoid all these effects, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) only recommends animal reintroductions if it were necessary to recover endangered or locally extinct populations. Hence, reintroductions for emotional reasons would be against the recommendations of the World’s biggest federation of conservation organizations. The world population of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) is estimated to be over 600.000 individuals, and it is not considered endangered in the IUCN Red List. The world population of killer whales (Orcinus orca) is estimated over 50.000 and is not considered globally endangered either.
Nowadays even the anti-captive organizations have realized that releasing the animals into the sea is unrealistic, and they have changed their strategy to request the re-housing of the cetaceans in more natural settings, the so-called Marine Sanctuaries.

Option 2: To be housed in a Marine Sanctuary

• The fundamental problem with marine sanctuaries for killer whales and dolphins is that they are non-existent.
o Currently, the only operational sanctuary (exclusive for belugas) is the SeaLife Beluga Whale Sanctuary on Vestmannaeyjar islands (Ice-land). Two belugas were transferred from a Shanghai water park in June 2019 and were kept in a small quarantine pool over a year for acclimatization. In August 2020, they were finally relocated to the 35.000 square meters sanctuary, but after only four months they were transferred back to the small quarantine pool for the winter.
o The fact is that nowadays the belugas remain in the small quarantine pool and SeaLife is planning to bring them back into the Sanctuary not before spring 2022. However, they will not be back to the original sanctuary, instead of that they will be placed in a new intermediate “habitat” which is now being built and just represents 6% of the available surface, i.e. 2100m2. Just to compare, at Orca Ocean we have 7000m2.
o If the romantic idea of the anti-captivity organizations that the natural conditions and enormous size of the sanctuary will automatically improve the welfare of cetaceans is correct, why the belugas of the Beluga Whale SeaLife Sanctuary have been relocated to a small concrete quarantine pool? And why has the original sanctuary been reduced 94% to create smaller intermediate facility?
o This clearly proves that Sanctuaries the supposed benefits are just based on emotions and not in science.
• There is evidence that the relocation of cetaceans in a sanctuary with a bigger space than an accredited zoological facility:
o Will not improve their ability to reach maximum speed.
o Does not necessarily mean that cetaceans are going to use all space.
o Does not guarantee the spontaneous increase in their rate of swimming and diving.
o Could event not to result in an improvement of their welfare.

It is unrealistic to assume that just leaving the animals in a sanctuary 15 or 20 meters deep in some areas, that would spontaneously make them dive deeper and for longer periods. During the rehabilitation of Keiko (a wild born orca) his dives were recorded and 93% of them were between 6 and 26 meters (when he was outside the sea pen).

Option 3: Continue living in modern dolphinaria

• Modern zoological facilities have been taking care of cetaceans since several decades. All the scientific evidence shows that currently they have longer living expectancy under human care than in the wild, which probes that they receive adequate care and thrive in dolphinariums.
• The scientific evidence demonstrates that animal presentations, training and interactions in zoo-housed cetaceans reduce their cortisol levels, which clearly states that they can be considered a positive environmental enrichment tool. The performance of high energetic behaviors in the presentations provides physical activity comparable with swimming tenths of miles, keeping the cetaceans healthy and in very good fit.
• If we consider the maximum speed that can be achieved by a cetacean, the modern accredited facilities allow them to accelerate enough to reach it. That can be easily calculated from the height of their jumps, which clearly demonstrates this is not a limitation.
• Many zoological facilities for orcas have depths ranging from 8 to 12 meters in most of their pools, which is in the range of the non-feeding dives for this species. That demonstrates this is not a limitation.
• Water in modern accredited facilities, such as Loro Parque, has the highest quality. Seawater from a low polluted area (like the Central Atlantic Ocean) is taken directly from the sea and pre-filtered to avoid any pathogen affecting the orcas while keeping the natural equilibrium and chemical characteristics of seawater.
• The use of high-quality frozen fish is a standard among zoological facilities, the quality of the fish is controlled in a way that keeps all its nutritional values and is free from parasites, pathogens or contamination. The use of this diet in zoo-housed cetaceans for over a century is the best prove that it covers their nutritional needs.
• Modern zoos are free of severe environmental hazards, as all of them have contingency plans to be ready for storms, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc.
• The negative effects of the zoological facilities in the environment is very limited or non-existent. They could be even positive if the potential benefits for the biodiversity are taken into account. Modern facilities (like Loro Parque) have environmental management schemes (ISO 14000, or EMAS) that reduce the environmental impact of the operational activities and produces all its energy consumption with renewable sources.
• The filtration systems and the sewage treatment avoid the release of pathogens to the environment, and prevents the pollution of the adjacent coastal areas with organic matter.

In conclusion, we expect that it becomes clear that the discussion on having dolphins and orcas under human care cannot be driven by emotions, financial interests, or other agendas, rather than by only one and foremost priority: the actual welfare and the wellbeing of every single animal. Moreover, vast experience accumulated by the modern zoos in this area serves as a direct contributor to the benefit of the wild populations, converting the animals under human care into authentic ambassadors of their species.
Loro Parque Foundation is the best example on how zoo-housed cetaceans can help preserve the threatened populations of their wild counterparts. During the last 15 years, the foundation has founded research to preserve one of the most endangered killer whale populations in Gibraltar Strait. State of the art experiments performed with the orcas housed at Orca Ocean have been essential to know the effects of pollutants in the survivorship of the species in the long term, and helped unveil the diet of the orcas at Gibraltar Strait, shed light on the hearing of the species, and promote the creation of a Marine Protected area for orcas off southern Spain. In 2021 Loro Parque Fundación initiated the support of one of the most critically endangered cetacean species, the Atlantic Humpback Dolphin in Senegal, the fund raising for this project has been really difficult, and few other NGOs are supporting the efforts to save it from oblivion. None of the organizations campaigning against cetaceans in zoos has ever mentioned this species that could even disappear in the next decades, and you can be sure they will never fundraise for the real threatened cetaceans. And this is because attacking zoos is much more profitable for them, even though they are taking the focus out of the threatened species for their own benefit. Loro Parque and other zoological organizations have been fighting for the survival of the world most threatened cetaceans, have you ever wondered: what are the anti-zoo organizations doing for them?

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