A question of Ethics

Ethics – Critical element of higher thinking that differentiates man from most other animals


Free captive Orcas!


Outstanding presentation by Thomas White, arguing that it is ethically indefensible to keep dolphins in captivity because captive facilities cannot provide the conditions necessary for “flourishing.”

Flourishing highlights

Free and wild dolphinOf special significance is dolphins’ sense of self, a trait displayed by few species – man, dolphins, chimps, and elephants are examples. When this ability is present, it allows us to not only perceive the world, but also to reflect upon our perceptions, giving us a sense of “I” – a sense of uniqueness. Dolphins’ sense of self must be considered in any debate on the ethics of captivity.


Next consideration – how do humans punish other humans. Incarceration. Severe punishment is isolation. Apply this to the example of Lolita, captured in 1970 as a very young orca from the “L” pod of the Southern Resident orca community in the Pacific Northwest.


Lolita is the only orca housed at the Miami Seaquarium. Her former tank-mate, Hugo, died in March of 1980 after repeatedly smashing his head into the walls of the tank in what is described as an act of suicide. Lolita has been alone ever since!


The ability to adapt to an environment that cannot allow us to progress as an individual does not equate to flourishing. To learn what conditions cetaceans need to thrive requires study of them in the wild. They are highly social beings, more so than humans; they need to be part of a consistent social unit and need to be able to choose their relationships. They need freedom of movement and control over their lives. They must have conditions that challenge them progress as individuals. Repeating –  self-aware like humans, cetaceans need interaction with others and life challenges similar to those that humans need if they are to thrive.


Those in the marine park industry who are making decisions and statements regarding cetaceans in captivity are financial specialists. Their focus is not on scientific data, but on making money.


Tactics used by the marine park industry include attempts to discredit well known and respected professionals in the scientific community as well as those whose expertise is in business ethics by labeling them as radicals, a term that discourages the open mind of the public. The industry consistently attempts to limit discussion and has been called to task repeatedly – for promoting the idea that it has contributed significant scientific research on cetaceans – by respected marine biologists respected in the field, such as Dr. Naomi Rose.



We should want to know about the person making these presentations…

  • What are his credentials?
  • What qualifies this person as a valid source on this topic? – Although the concepts presented by Mr. White are logical, reasonable, and based on scientific facts, we are prudent to learn more about his background.
  • Where was this presentation given and to what end?

Critical note

When thinking citizens try to evaluate information given to reach a valid decision regarding any issue, conduct of information sources is pertinent. In the case of cetacean captivity, we have two actual sources – the marine parks that benefit financially from cetacean captivity and the scientific community. All additional sources will fall under those two.


Motivation is a key judgmental factor when evaluating reliability of sources. What does each source stand to gain from swaying us to support their position? It is important to note that those who stand to gain financially, or in other life enhancing ways, are potentially prone to hide information that undermines their position as well as report details in a manner that make them appear to speak truths that are not evident in fact. For this reason, objective outsider agencies are often employed in other venues to determine actual truth.


Without incontrovertible evidence to prove their assertions, input from the marine park industry, including testimony from biologists in their employ or in any way compensated by the industry, is suspect from the start. Marine parks must bear the responsibility to provide clear and irrefutable evidence to support their case. This need for this  requirement is not opinion; it is substantiated by the history of business ethics compromised for profit.


Potential indication of duplicitous actions by SeaWorld


In 2014, the American Cetacean Society hosted a panel on cetacean captivity at its 14th international conference. Thomas White explains that right before the panel began, the participants were informed that unlike all the other panels that would take place, this ethics panel would not be videotaped as requested by SeaWorld.


“…in relation to what is normal at scientific and research conferences of this sort, requests like this are seriously inappropriate. Openness, transparency – free, full public debate are the norm. At conferences of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, for example,  everything is recorded so that anyone who is not there knows what went on.”


Why would SeaWorld require that there would be no videotape?


White reasonably speculates that the SeaWorld predisposition to label those who speak against their business model [where it affects cetacean captivity] as radicals and not serious researchers who have professional concerns about how they run their company.  This characterization is easier to maintain without recorded interaction between the marine parks and a highly respected marine scientist who is a known critic of the captivity industry – and co-panelist White, a philosopher who teaches at a conservative business school at a conservative university.


If marine parks can convince the public that their opposition is not credible, the need to effectively prove the premise that the captive industry is sound and humane is almost non-existent.

Many thanks to the Black Cove community, an extension of Melbourne Dolphin for publicizing the panel presentation above!


More resources

Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas by Denise L. Herzing


Dr. Denise Herzing began her research with a pod of spotted dolphins in the 1980s. Now, almost three decades later, she has forged strong ties with many of these individuals, has witnessed and recorded them feeding, playing, fighting, mating, giving birth and communicating. Dolphin Diaries is an account of Herzing’s research and her surprising findings on wild dolphin behavior, interaction, and communication.


Dr. Lori Marino, PhD

From National Geographic, written by Virginia Morell

Marino is a biopsychologist who’s spent the past 18 years at Emory University delving into the behavior of captive dolphins. She wields her knowledge of animal cognition and behavior like a cudgel to argue that many other species have such sophisticated cognitive capacities that they can only be regarded as persons.


“Just look at the case with Tommy,” she says, referring to the chimpanzee whom the Nonhuman Rights Project attempted to free last December. Tommy’s lawyer, Steven Wise, had argued that New York State’s habeas corpus provision should apply to this chimpanzee “petitioner” too.


At one point in the proceedings , after Wise declared that chimpanzees are autonomous beings, the judge interrupted him abruptly. “Says who?” he demanded.


Wise responded by producing a stack of affidavits Marino had gathered from the world’s leading primatologists, testifying to chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities and sense of self. The judge’s dismissive tone changed.


“He got it,” says Marino. “That’s the power of science.”

Share Button