Thinking of swimming with dolphins? Here’s why you should kick it right off your bucket list

There are more than 80 species worldwide of whales and dolphins with many listed as endangered, due to hunting, live capture for use in entertainment, pollution, fishing by-catch and human shipping activities in their habitats[1]. 

Dolphins in particular amongst the cetaceans have long held a fascination for people, with stories and art dating back to the Greek myths recounting tales of dolphins with their affinity for music, saving young heroes such as Arion (find the full story here) and being rewarded by being immortalised as a constellation. 

By Alcestis Group – Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-05-02, CC BY 2.5,

Dolphins are known to be highly intelligent animals with complex social structures and sophisticated patterns of communication.  They live in family groups (pods) with established evidence of social support and cohesion[2] 

Dolphinaria (aquariums for the keeping of dolphins) grew in popularity in the twentieth century as a form of entertainment with such establishments common in UK seaside towns along with many locations in Europe, USA, Japan and Russia.  The Born Free Foundation state that over 2000 individual dolphins are currently resident in dolphinaria worldwide[3].  Conditions are often poor with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) report (2014) noting that ‘no captive cetacean in the EU has the freedom to express normal behaviour’, a cornerstone of the five freedoms in animal welfare[4].  Respiratory disease is a major cause of death in captive dolphins with life expectancies far below that of a wild population[5].

Dolphins in entertainment facilities are often wild-caught with 285 live cetaceans imported into the EU between 1979-2008 regardless of an EU CITES ban on import of live Cetaceans for entertainment purposes[4]. This live-catching disrupts and endangers wild populations, causing stress and a higher mortality rate both to those removed and those left behind[4].  Imported dolphins are often taken from populations around countries where animal welfare legislation is poor or non-existent and wild dolphins are already under threat from hunting, fishing by-catch or pollution.  Indeed, the EU Zoo Inquiry of Dolphinaria by WDC (2014) notes that many imports of cetaceans into the EU are not properly recorded as required under CITES so numbers may be far higher[4].

In the UK, dolphinaria declined in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s largely due to greater understanding of these animals’ welfare needs led by some successful targeting of a marine park in Morecombe by local animal activists.  Negative publicity and picketing of the Morecombe dolphinarium by the Morecombe Dolphin Campaign caused a downturn in visitor numbers by 80-90%   and the gathering of many signatures on a petition for the closure of the park 6].   The Morecombe dolphinarium closed with its remaining dolphin Rocky being rehabilitated and returned to the wild via the Born Free Foundation.  The remaining dolphinaria in the UK closed soon afterwards.

As the traditional entertainment of dolphin shows to music declined in the UK, the shows continued to thrive in other parts of the world with a new element of ‘dolphin encounters’ being available to tourists at an additional cost.  These ‘swimming with dolphins’ and ‘dolphin-assisted-therapy’ sessions are readily available in the EU, USA, South America, Russia and Japan and are particularly promoted by cruise ship tours operating out of the Florida area into the Caribbean where animal welfare laws are very poor.   Animals in these facilities may be kept in very small enclosures and exposed to tourist contact with very little respite[7].

Examples of stereotypical and aversive behaviour and stress levels have been shown to be higher in dolphins kept in smaller, closed systems of treated (chlorinated) water rather than those in larger, open systems with access to sea water and marine wildlife[8]

UK tourist operators such as Thomas Cook provide an idealised view of these encounters, encouraging a swimming-with-dolphins ‘bucket list, once in a lifetime’ ideal as shown at their link here for a Mexican dolphin park[9].  However, animal welfare organisations such as WDC advise against the practice due to significant welfare problems for the dolphins and the risks to people entering the water with them[10]

Tourist dolphin encounters are big business with a single dolphin able to generate $1million per year[11], what price in animal welfare are these intelligent and sociable mammals paying to line the pockets of investors?  Don’t be tempted by these welfare-poor animal encounters; support instead ways to see cetaceans in their wild environment, supporting local communities and preserving wild populations in good health and left to live in peace  

Playful dolphins jumping over breaking waves. Hawaii Pacific Ocean wildlife scenery. Marine animals in natural habitat.[12]



[1] WDC (2018) All About Whales and Dolphins. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[2] WDC (2018) Welcome to the World of Whales and Dolphins. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[3] Born Free (2018) Captive Whales and Dolphins – Global. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[4] Whale and Dolphin Conservation (2014) EU Zoo Inquiry: Dolphinaria.  Wiltshire: WDC.
[5] Brando, S., Broom, D.M., Acasuso-Rivero, C. and Clark, F. (2017) Optimal marine mammal welfare under human care: Current efforts and future directions.  Behavioural Processes, Article in Press.  [Available online at] .
[6] Hughes, P. (2001) Animals, values and tourism – structural shifts in UK dolphin tourism provision.  Tourism Management, 22: 321-329.
[7] PETA (2018) ‘Swim-with-Dolphins’ Programs.  Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[8] Ugaz, C., Valdez, R.A., Romano, M.C. and Galindo, F. (2013) Behavior and salivary cortisol of captive dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) kept in open and closed facilities.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8: 285-290.
[9] Thomas Cook (2018) Dolphinaris Cancun. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[10] WDC (2018) Swimming with Dolphins. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[11] SunSentinel (2018) Captive mammals can net big profits for exhibitors. Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].
[12] iTrekkers (2018) Dolphins Image Available at: [Accessed 20.02.18].



There are 3Rs, but perhaps the 1R of ‘replacement’ is all we need?

The 3Rs have been a feature of scientific research since the 1950s when Russell and Burch introduced the concepts of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement to improve animal experimentation welfare [1].  The aims were to reduce the numbers of animals used in scientific experiments by finding alternate methods, streamlining experimental procedures to involve fewer animals and to minimise the welfare impact on those that were used.

Despite significant scientific advances since the 1950s, many millions of animals are still used for scientific experiments.  In the UK alone in 2016, 3.94 million procedures were carried out. These included 2.02 million experimental procedures and the breeding or creation of a staggering 1.91 million genetically altered animals that were not used in any further experiments, a total increase between 2007 and 2016 of 23% in animal experimentation largely due to the rise of breeding genetically altered animals [2].

When transgenic animals are bred, not all animals will have the desired genetic material and often further crossbreeding must take place to create reliable strains of animals for experimentation so many animals are surplus to requirements [3].  The numbers of animals bred but not used in the field of transgenics has been receiving attention with the industry itself looking at ways of working with the 3Rs to minimise the numbers of animals created [4].  Recognised innovations include the use of refinements in techniques to create the need for smaller colonies of transgenic animals to provide the same numbers of usable specimens for experimentation [5].

However, this reduction in numbers may be seen as a drop in the ocean given the numbers of animals involved and attention is also focussed on whether experimentation on animals can be replaced with other methods.  The development of the ‘organ on a chip’ takes cell tissue research and combines with a computer chip to create organ cells in miniature using human tissue [6].  These tiny working models of organs can replicate responses to experimental drugs without the need to use animals.  Indeed, as it has been acknowledged that transgenic animals can respond to illness in a different way from humans such as in cancer trials [3], the use of human tissue can also be seen as a significant step in creating reliable models of disease and treatment.

Suggestions have been made that more animal research trials using invertebrates may also be a way forward in replacing suffering to vertebrates, as invertebrates (with the exception of cephalopods) are not recognised in law as having the same need for welfare protection [7].  This notion is challenged by emerging research into the capabilities of invertebrates of feeling pain and stress [8] and campaigns for the welfare rights of lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans to come into line with those already accorded to these animals in New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland [9].

As the likely trend of our understanding of suffering and welfare consequences for more groups of animals grows, perhaps the time is right for the focus of the 3Rs away from the utilitarian idea of refinement of experiments on fewer animals and instead a greater emphasis on the replacement of animal experiments with other methods.


[1] Russell, W.M.S. and Burch, R.L. (1959) The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique.  London: Methuen.

[2] Home Office (2017) Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals. Great Britain 2016. London: Home Office.

[3] National Human Genome Research Institute (2015) Knockout Mice. Available at: [Accessed 05.12.2017].

[4] NC3Rs (2017) When the 3Rs and transgenic technologies meet. Available at: [Accessed 03.12.2017].

[5] Transgenic Technology 2017 (2017) And the inaugural prize winner is… Available at: [Accessed 05.12.2017].

[6] The Scientist (2017) Organs on chips. Available at: [Accessed 05.12.2017].

[7] Doke, S.K. and Dhawale, S.C. (2013) Alternatives to animal testing: A review.  Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal. 23: 223–229.

[8] Horvath, K., Angeletti, D., Nascetti, G. and Carer, C. (2013) Invertebrate welfare: an overlooked issue.  Ann Ist Super Sanita. 49, 1: 9-17.

[9] The Ecologist (2017) Crustacean Compassion campaigns for welfare rights for lobsters & crabs. Available at: [Accessed 05.12.2017].


Semi-Feral Ponies Sold at Auction – Is Welfare Compromised?

Autumn is a time for equine sales to allow for selling of animals from the moors and commons.  These ponies are owned but largely unhandled, living free on moorland most of the year.  Given the People4Ponies (a Devon equine welfare organisation) reports on the Chagford Dartmoor pony sale, Devon 13th October and the Hallworthy sale, Cornwall 22nd October (People4ponies, 2016), it is appropriate to consider the welfare impact of these sales for animals that pass through them.

The Hallworthy sale was noted for welfare concerns of poor handling, escaped ponies and poor pony transport arrangements after the sale along with evidence of ear-notching, an illegal practice under the Animal Welfare Act.   Of the entered animals (just under 100), the majority were purchased by horse meat dealers and travelling to slaughter.  Neither Trading Standards nor the DEFRA vet were in attendance for the sale to oversee adherence to welfare standards.

For entry into horse sales, animals are transported to the venue, penned, transferred into sale rings, returned to pens and loaded on to transport to leave.  For unhandled equines from the moors, this is likely to be a high stress experience due to novelty of situation and proximity to people.

Research into transport of horses by road has shown that animals show increased physiological markers for stress including raised adrenaline and cortisol levels especially during loading (Tateo et al., 2012).  Multi-horse loose transport vehicles (such as meat trucks) cause a state of continual stress for horses and contribute towards their dehydration with unhandled animals coping less well than handled animals (Padalino, 2015).

In equines, stress from transport alone can cause oxidative stress (imbalance in the body between free radicals and antioxidants) along with raised heart and respiratory rates (Onmaz et al., 2011).  Oxidative stress left untreated leads to oxidative damage in muscle tissues which can lead to animals presenting for slaughter and entering the food chain in a state of oxidative damage, the consumption of which meat is now raising questions for human (and animal) health (Soladoye et al., 2015).

Added to the transport stress, there is also a period of animals being kept and in some instances mixed in pens; the large scale transport arrangements of the meat men involve penning and loading previously unknown groups of equines together.  Behaviours in semi-feral, unhandled ponies can be inhibited by being mixed with other, unknown equines (Von de Weerd et al., 2012) with this study showing ponies’ reluctance to drink and increased risk of dehydration.  Onmaz et al. (2011) also note this mixing of equines and lack of drinking water as risk factors for oxidative stress.

The handling manner for semi-feral, unhandled equines is of vital importance to minimise stress to include appropriate approach of the animals (Birke et al., 2011).  Small movements and a slow approach in this study were sufficient to trigger ponies moving away from people such as would be required to move from a pen into the sale ring; a fast approach and more violent movement caused ponies to move away further and at higher speed with flight response triggered.  The Welfare of Horses at Markets (and Other Places of Sale) Order 1990 (, 2016) prohibits the use of excessive force to handle or control horses suggesting that slow and careful handling and moving of the horses would be expected as good practice especially with unhandled animals.

It may be expected that handlers are trained to recognise equine stress indicators but this is not a clear cut area as different horse personality types have been shown to express pain and stress more actively or passively (Ijichi et al., 2014, Budzyuska, 2014).  Therefore, handlers’ understanding of these expressions of emotions may not adequately reflect whether an animal is suffering, especially in the case of no previous relationship between handler and handled animal.

Given the welfare implications of transport and handling of the ponies and the meat safety concerns of animals slaughtered for meat in an oxidative stress state (the final destination for many of these equines sold at sales), is it now time to reconsider the holding of such sales for equines in the UK with particular reference to unhandled, semi-feral ponies?  For these sales to continue, at the very least we need to be confident that the ponies’ needs are being fully met under the Animal Welfare Act and require the commitment of mandatory local authority attendance by specialist officers and their robust welfare law enforcement.  If their welfare needs cannot be met, perhaps the time of sending semi-feral moorland ponies to the drift sales should be over.


Birke, L. et al. (2011) Horses’ responses to variation in human approach. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 134, 56-63.

Budzynska, M. (2014) Stress Reactivity and Coping in Horse Adaptation to Environment. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 34, 935-941.

Ijichi, C. et al. (2014) Pain expression is linked to personality in horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 38-53.

Onmaz, A. Et al (2011) Oxidative stress in horses after a 12-hours transport period. Revue de Médecine Vétérinaire, 162, 4, 213-217.

Padalino, B. (2015) Effects of the different transport phases on equine health status, behavior, and welfare: A review. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 10, 272-282.

People4ponies (2016) People4ponies Blog. Available at [Accessed 27/10/16].

Soladoye, O., P. et al. (2015) Protein Oxidation in Processed Meat: Mechanisms and Potential Implications on Human Health. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 14, 106-122.

Tateo, A. et al. (2012) Transport stress in horses: Effects of two different distances. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 7, 33-42.

The Welfare of Horses at Markets (and Other Places of Sale) Order 1990. Available at [Accessed 27/10/16].

Van de Weerd, H. et al. (2012) Use of artificial drinkers by unhandled semi-feral ponies. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 139, 86-95.