What a loaded topic to ask about, and seemingly out of the blue. I admit I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to the captive cetacean scene, did something happen recently to generate this question?
Keeping cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in captivity is a long and complex topic, but my short answer is: Not the way we currently keep them.
Now, I can’t claim to be an expert on cetaceans. I’m an experienced vet with a broad experience base, which puts me in an awkward position of thoroughly understanding just enough to realise I do not understand nearly enough about these animals. (Honestly, I’m not even completely certain they should be called ‘animals’ instead of ‘beings’, but that’s another topic.)
The thing about keeping animals, any animal, in captivity is that there are some species we can keep very well, with good health and welfare, and there are some species that we don’t keep so well. Domestic species we keep very well, and their close relatives are often not too difficult by comparison,
Cetaceans (and potentially elephants) are in a league of their own due to their large size and social networks. There’s a lot of background discussion on them, especially on how to euthanize stranded whales well because up until recently the go-to method for large baleen whale euthanasia could tactlessly be described as dynamite to the brain.
While there are lots of concerns you could have about keeping cetaceans in captivity, there are a few in particular that personally concern me. This is not necessarily because I think they’re most important, but because I personally understand them the most thoroughly.
First is space and the enclosure. I was fortunate enough to see the whale sharks (yes, I am aware they’re not cetaceans, my point is that they are big) at the Atlanta Aquarium, which is the biggest saltwater aquarium in the world, and those sharks are not fully grown, and I still think it’s too small. The underside of those sharks were covered in scratches and scars that you never see on the underside of wild photographed whale sharks. Now if that’s the biggest saltwater enclosure in the world, and it’s still not big enough, then we need to seriously re-think what we’re doing. These species are adapted to having the entire ocean, we are probably vastly underestimating the space they require for optimum welfare.
The health of cetaceans that spend a prolonged time in captivity varies, but on average seems to be different (and arguably worse) than for cetaceans in the wild. The question then arises, should we be doing something if we can’t at least do it as well as nature?
Captive breeding of cetaceans I think needs a serious overhaul, and some species need to stop being bred in captivity at all. Orcas are a prime example. There is evidence to suggest that multi-generation captive bred orcas do better in captivity than wild caught, which has raised the question of are we effectively domesticating whales. However, some genius decided to take Tilikum, the well known orca that killed three people, two of them his trainers, and spread his genes through 21 offspring. Now, the first rule of making your life easier when dealing with animals is that you don’t breed the aggressive ones, yet we did. That should be acknowledged as a Dumb Move. The family tree is a huge mess.
While we have gained some scientific knowledge from keeping cetaceans in captivity, the value of that knowledge is admittedly limited and could probably also be gathered from wild populations or cetaceans in rehabilitation.
At some point as a global society we’re going to have to realise that just because we want something, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re equipped to have it.
Maybe we can do better. Larger enclosures, more focus on the animal’s enrichment and socialization, prioritizing return to the wild, or even sea cages instead of tanks are all potential possibilities, but I am not the person you should be asking about this.