What to do when your principles conflict with your support of science?

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Above: The infamous Tilikum performing at SeaWorld Orlando in March 2005. The trainer is Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by Tilikum in February 2010. Photo by the author.

Last week, SeaWorld in the US, made the momentous decision to discontinue their orca breeding program, and to stop any new killer whales being brought into their three facilities at San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, Texas. The killer whales will no longer take part in public shows. I also think SeaWorld made the correct decision not to return their captive orcas back into the wild. After so long away, there would be little chance they would survive.

Anyone who has followed recent events at SeaWorld, especially after the damning documentary Blackfish, will know the unnatural conditions the animals live in, and the dangers that both animals and trainers have to face multiple times daily in performing their famous Shamu shows. Despite this decision being a great step forward, it’s clear that SeaWorld’s actions are not entirely altruistic. Ever since Blackfish, SeaWorld has suffered a massive PR problem, so much so, that their stock value has plummeted. I don’t think that it’s too cynical to suggest that last week’s decision was driven by more than trying to make the lives of their captive animals happier. What has surprised me – as someone who has lived in a country (the UK) without any captive cetaceans for over 20 years – is how many dolphins and whales are kept in aquaria, zoos and marine parks across the world. Wikipedia suggests that as of September 2015, there were 58 captive orcas in North and South America, Europe and Asia (23 at SeaWorld parks alone). It is difficult to pin down how many captive dolphins there are across the world, but around 500 is a conservative estimate (with the number of dolphinariums in Japan [34] and the US [31] as quite staggering). Why do I bring this up?

I’m occasionally asked to support various animal causes because of my position as an academic comparative psychologist. Last week, I was asked whether I would sign a letter supporting scientific research on captive cetaceans because the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees marine parks across the US, is reviewing their standards policy for keeping and using cetaceans. Researchers who study cetaceans in captivity request support for their research from individuals such as me, stating why it’s important and impractical outside of a captive environment. These scientists are rightly concerned that those with an extreme animal rights agenda will use any updated standards to force through a cessation of all research on captive cetaceans, and potentially a ban on housing dolphins and whales at all.

This request has caused me a little angst.

I work on captive animals. As someone who studies the cognitive abilities of animals, it is imperative that we maintain a strict level of control on what our animals experience, what may influence them during experimental trials, and most importantly, their previous experimental history. Despite some inroads into studying cognitive processes in wild animals, problems remain that restrict what can be surmised from this data. This leads to a problem. In order to conduct proper empirical research, we need to maintain a certain number of captive animals, but with the understanding that some species are going to be better off not being kept in captivity at all. Have you ever seen a polar bear in captivity?  What did you think? You probably saw it continually pacing around its enclosure, tracing the same steps over and over again. This stereotypy is likely the result of the bear’s natural propensity to roam great distances in the wild for its food, sometimes 30 to 80km per day. Of course, no zoo can ever mimic this sort of environment and so can never fulfil the species’ behavioural need. Despite this, it’s very important that we discover something about the behaviour and cognition of polar bears. With ever increasing destruction of their habitat due to climate change, bears are encroaching closer to human settlements. In order to prepare for these unwelcome visitors, it’s important to know more about their motivations, how they face certain challenges, what they can and cannot learn and how this information may be used to manage them safely. The frightening alternative is that they are managed at the point of a gun.

This is my problem, and the reason why I have yet to sign up to this supporting document. On the one hand, I don’t think cetaceans are best served by being kept in captivity (or at least captivity as we currently know it), as it cannot fulfil these creatures’ biological or intellectual needs. On the other hand, I strongly believe that we have benefitted from studying captive cetaceans. We may disagree about the interpretation of some studies, but we know so much more about these animals than we ever could by only studying them in their natural habitat; their intelligence, communication, perception, social behaviour and their extraordinary physiology. Similarly, we know more about apes, monkeys, corvids, parrots, elephants and a myriad of other creatures through captive studies than we ever would have by restricting our studies to wild populations. To be clear, I’m not saying that field studies are less important than captive studies in telling us something about animal minds (or anything else); far from it. Rather, that a combination of approaches is going to be the most powerful and informative.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I wish there was a happy medium. I continue to believe that captive research is essential, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. And I certainly don’t have the right to proclaim that it’s OK to study species X in captivity, but not species Y.

To me, there are two main issues. First, why do we need to keep so many cetaceans in captivity, and in so many different establishments? Second, we need to carefully consider whether some species are simply too dangerous, too large or too demanding to be kept in captivity, and perhaps these criteria should trump all research priorities.

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