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Animal neuroscientist discusses her career and the case for keeping cetaceans out of captivity

Lori Marino is board president and executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, an organization building safe, seaside sanctuaries for once-captive whales. She’s also an affiliate at the Safina Center. In light of recent decisions by many countries and U.S. states to ban keeping orcas and other cetaceans captive, we recently chatted with Marino to learn more about her experience as a neuroscientist and the Whale Sanctuary Project’s mission.

Photo by Josh Hallett. Orcas Takara and Trua perform at SeaWorld in Florida. (Flickr)

Photo by Josh Hallett. Orcas Takara and Trua perform at SeaWorld in Florida. (Flickr)

How does your work studying animal neurology shed light on the debate on cetacean captivity?

My research on cetacean neuroanatomy, intelligence and self-awareness has confirmed what everyone intuits about these animals—they are highly intelligent, emotionally and socially complex, self-aware beings.

When I first started out in graduate school hardly anyone was working on cetacean neuroanatomy and so I decided it was a good field to go into because there was so much to be discovered. What I learned is that many cetaceans have brains proportionately much larger than any other animals except modern humans and that some cetaceans have evolved brains with a relative size very close to modern humans. Additionally, their brains are extremely complex. One of the pervasive “memes” about dolphin and whale brains that I was able to help to dispel with my work is the idea that cetacean brains are large but simple in organization and, hence, were so different from primate brains that they could not possibly be the basis for complex intelligence.

People used to think that dolphin brains were just large sonar receivers. But nothing could be further from the truth. With new methods for analyzing these large brains on both a cellular level and a more global level (with imaging techniques) we’ve discovered that these brains are enormously complex and highly elaborated in regions that are involved in all kinds of “high-level” thinking processes. Last year I co-authored a paper using diffusion tensor imaging with post-mortem dolphin brains and showed that dolphins have more than one ascending auditory tract! That means that sound is processed in two completely different areas of the brain. That’s an example of complexity in the way acoustic processing is integrated with cognitive processing.

We also know that the neocortex, the part of the brain that forms the basis of complex thought, self-awareness, reasoning, communication, etc. is not only highly elaborated in many cetaceans, it is extremely complex in its cellular architecture. This means that their brain has evolved to do some very complex kinds of processing at highly integrated levels. We are just beginning to be able to probe connectivity in cetacean brains in a systematic way and I think that line of research will confirm the picture that has emerged of a brain that underwent strong evolutionary selection for processing information in a highly sophisticated way.

What is driving you to carry out Whale Sanctuary Project’s mission of building seaside sanctuaries for once-captive whales?

Our Project is driven by the simple fact that, for years, we’ve watched dolphins and whales succumbing to the effects of living in concrete tanks and being forced to perform for food. At one point some of us decided that we needed to move beyond observing and into the realm of providing a realistic solution to these problems. And that is when we decided to build the first permanent seaside sanctuary for these animals.

We knew that most of the dolphins and whales in captivity currently cannot be released into the ocean as free-ranging individuals because they lack the skills to survive in a natural setting. But we also knew that there is a much better alternative for them than small and shallow concrete tanks. We took our cue from all of the wonderful authentic permanent sanctuaries for other large mammals, e.g., elephants, bears, big cats, primates, and realized that the creation of seaside sanctuaries, while not the same as living completely free, is a reasonable and impactful way to change the lives of captive cetaceans for the better.

More than just making life better for the individuals who are able to go to sanctuary, the very existence of a sanctuary for cetaceans creates a new model for relating to a group of animals who have been exploited and abused for our entertainment. It is all about creating a new relationship with them.

Photo by Marb~commonswiki. Bottlenose dolphin and trainer at Barcelona Zoo. (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo by Marb~commonswiki. Bottlenose dolphin and trainer at Barcelona Zoo. (Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the focus of cetacean captivity revolves around orcas. Why is this so? Is the keeping some cetaceans, like dolphins, in captivity ok, while others, like orcas, is not? Where is the dividing line, if any?

Most of the focus of cetacean captivity revolves around orcas because this species experiences the worst welfare in marine parks and aquariums. The belugas are a very close second. And, I think [the documentary] Blackfish also brought orcas into the limelight.

But it is important to remember that all cetaceans fare very poorly in concrete tanks. In addition to orcas and belugas, that includes bottlenose dolphins, porpoises, pilot whales, and others. There is a fundamental mismatch between who cetaceans are and what they need to thrive and what their life is like in marine parks and aquariums.

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.

Photo by Carl Safina. Short-beaked common dolphins in Great South Channel off of Martha’s Vineyard.

Photo by Carl Safina. Short-beaked common dolphins in Great South Channel off of Martha’s Vineyard.

This post was originally published to National Geographic Ocean Views on March 17, 2017. 

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