A pair of peer-reviewed papers (Dudzinski et al 2020 and Jaakkola et al 2020) on the topic of animal welfare at marine zoological settings raises several questions in regards to a series of questionable claims made by animal rights advocates. Co-authored by Jason Bruck.
Last year, the Journal of Veterinary Behavior published a paper by well-known animal rights proponents led by Dr. Lori Marino. The 2019 paper made dubious claims about whale neuroscience, behavior, captive stress, and whale care/longevity. Furthermore, the paper passed into anthropomorphism calling whale calves “children”, a term not usually associated with objective, non-agenda driven science. Marino is one of the names behind the controversial Whale Sanctuary Project and used her article to claim that orcas living under human care suffer from chronic stress as a result of living in man-made animal habitats. Unfortunately, very little work has been done in this arena to make proper comparisons.
In 2013, Shelby Proie published a Masters’s thesis comparing the stress conditions for animals under human care vs those in the wild. Her meta-analysis showed that under normal restraint handling there was no difference in stress profiles between wild and zoo-based animals. However, when husbandry training procedures were employed in zoological facilities dolphins under human care were less stressed than their wild counterparts. Unfortunately, this is not a fair comparison as no published data yet exist to measure stress hormones in non-handled wild animals. However, that might change in the near future.
Marino et al 2019 published speculation as fact in their article and that ultimately undermines good welfare science. It is therefore essential that their paper is read in the context of both Dudzinski et al 2020 and Jaakkola et al 2020 to understand where Marino et al 2019 makes over-generalizations, improperly cites other articles or offers speculation as fact.
To create good animal welfare laws, one must utilize accurate knowledge to inform law-makers in several areas. This is because scientific knowledge can serve as invaluable tools for making new policies that are aimed at improving the lives of animals in human care by ensuring their humane treatment. However, sometimes, these laws might be more rooted in the emotional demands of animal rights extremists rather than actual fact-based evidence that is rooted in actual science, which has been the case in the last few years with a series of “bans” on the keeping of marine mammals in zoological settings.
While there is no arguing that both zoo professionals and activists all want what is best for the well being of animals in zoological settings, the main focus has been on the question of quality of life for animals living under the care of zoos and aquariums.
In the past, for example, research on animal welfare and care has enabled the need to establish new regulations to better improve the lives of animals in zoos and aquariums by requiring zoos, aquariums, and circuses to establish new policies. They were all focused on better training and husbandry practices, and required such facilities to improve already existing habitats to ensure a better quality of life for the animals in question.
Now, however, things have changed in the past decade as more focus has been put on “banning” the keeping of certain species under human care as a result of a demand from push groups like the Humane Society, The Animal Welfare Institute, The Dolphin Project, The Free Morgan Foundation, Dolphinaria Free Europe and PeTA (amongst others). Often members of these groups have little-to-no-prior experience in animal care at zoos and aquariums and most do not have animal welfare backgrounds. This has been the case with killer whales, in which the housing and keeping of these marine mammals has been the subject of both media attention and on-going lobbying from anti-zoo extremists. Both Canada and the state of California has already “banned” either the keeping the killer whales in zoological parks or the breeding of them while a French court recently overturned a breeding ban. The more scientists are allowed to inform the process the less likely these bills are to pass. Dudzinski et al 2020 and Jaakkola et al 2020 highlight why both Hawaii and Connecticut abandoned their anti-zoological bills once scientific input was allowed to be heard over the clamor of emotional baseless argumentation.
A paper as poorly sourced and agenda-driven as Marino et al 2019 should not have been allowed to pass the peer-review process. It is therefore the role of more practiced experts in the field of cetacean welfare and science to call out the failings of the editorial process at the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. Still, it is even rarer to see two independent peer-reviewed papers come out to rebut an article such as this as quickly as they did, and as such, they serve as an absolute repudiation of the contents of Marino et al 2019. This is the scientific process at work for truth and reason.
Marino et al 2019 have several critical flaws in many areas. This is a summary of some of those flaws as outlined in Dudzinski et al 2020 and Jaakkola, et al 2020.
1. Claims about Natal Pod Relationships and “Psychological” Health
In Marino’s paper, she claims that killer whale calves rely on their upon their natal pods for psychological development. Yet, while such a claim sounds reasonable, there are currently no studies that have been conducted on measuring the effects maternal care has on a killer whale’s psychological well-being. Where there are gaps in the literature, Marino et al casually insert data from humans or other species separated by millions of years of evolution to make their point. Even on her website, Marino herself argues that orcas can form bonds outside the natal group.
2. Claims about Vocal Learning
In an ongoing attempt to pull on people’s heartstrings Marino makes a questionable claim that killer whales cannot engage in vocal learning. We know that not only orcas but bottlenose dolphins engage in vocal learning in captive settings without issue. Dolphins are even known to copy and use the calls of their pool mates when under human care.
3. Killer Whale Life Expectancy
Marino et al debates the use of certain lifespan measures when they disagree with their anti-captivity point of view, however, they are perfectly happy to endorse papers that use those same methods when they support anti-zoo positions. Marino et al also claim that orcas in captivity live shorter lifespans in zoos than in the wild. But their comparison involves counting calves in the wild only after they have made it past the first half-year of life, whereas captive killer whales are counted from birth on. For both captive and wild whales, those first few months of life are perilous, and making such a comparison misses all the stillborn calves that are born in the wild artificially skewing the data against zoos.
4. Self Awareness Claim
Marino claims that killer whales have mirror self-recognition capabilities and that somehow makes them too smart to live under human care. The idea is that if an animal can look at a mirror and not see another individual, but rather see their reflection than this means the animal has a sense of self. But the study they reference only shows a precursor to mirror recognition, not actual mirror recognition. And the authors fail to note that other species, including fish, have been shown to exhibit similar if not higher degrees of self-recognition. That is not to say that orcas are not smart, but rather suggests that this metric is meaningless to the topic of orca welfare.
5. Killer Whale Brains
Marino et al also makes the mistake of assuming that specific types of neurons in our brain do the same thing in orca brains. Even within people, there are vast differences in how neuroanatomy applies to function. We see this in human echolocators who are blind but use clicking noises to ‘see’ with sound. It turns out that people who do this process these sound data where the rest of us process our visual data. This type of neuroplasticity makes interspecies comparisons looking at pure neuroanatomy without examining behavior-a questionable strategy at best. Dr. Marino herself has often commented on whale cognition solely based on neuroanatomy without corresponding behavioral data.
6. Stress and Space?
Marino et al, like many anti-zoo activists, claim that housing killer whales in pool habitats lead to “chronic stress”. Their critics agree that adequate space is very important in meeting the needs of animals living in zoological facilities. However, no study has ever been conducted to look at how space affects orca well-being. One cannot claim that pool size causes stress if one has no data to support that notion. Yet Marino has explicitly suggested that further data such as these are not necessary.
“It really is not a matter of making the tanks a little bit bigger or deeper or forcing them to perform more “naturalistic” behaviors. The whole enterprise of keeping cetaceans for entertainment and/or research just doesn’t work and the scientific data are abundantly clear on this issue. There is no room for interpretation or debate at this point in time. Cetaceans lead shorter and more stressful lives in marine parks and aquariums than their wild counterparts.” – Lori Marino
Space is just one consideration in welfare. How orcas use that space and what aspects of that space are reinforcing can also play a role in orca wellbeing. It is not uncommon to see orcas in human care not in the largest pool but the smallest pools, especially when those pools are closer to their human counterparts.
In science, there are phases of an investigation. It begins with observations, which lead to testable hypotheses. From there you have predictions, data collection/analysis, and publication. Marino et al use bogus citations, incorrect conclusions, and overzealous interpretations to skip from the observation phase to the publication phase without addressing the steps in-between. As a result, they have produced a largely agenda-driven, unscientific paper. The word to describe such a thinking process is confirmation bias—which does not belong in the world of objective scientific research. This is the unfortunate result of the merger between activism and ‘scientific-looking’ processes, where people start with the answer (“orcas do not belong in captivity”) and work backward from there. In the end, it is the legitimate science of animal welfare that suffers the most, as legitimate science is overshadowed by bomb-throwers and loud activists with advanced degrees.