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Did you know dolphins have personalities?

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Holly. Image: Miray Campbell

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Let me tell you the story of an awe-inspiring orca with a fascinating family story...

Trick-For-Treat?!

Belugas are highly social and gregarious creatures, often forming large aggregations in the summer months.   Like the throngs of trick-or-treaters that will be darkening your doorstep later tonight, belugas often form large social hunting groups to track down their next meal, though they don’t usually wear costumes!

 

Ready for the wrong holiday, but this costumed beluga will be “rewarded” with a treat for dressing up.

For belugas and orcas in captivity, the “or” in “trick-or-treat” is taken away, and “trick” has a different meaning.  To receive a treat – which may be a fish, a toy, a massage, or some other activity or plaything meant to entertain the animal – they must first do a trick, some behavior that their trainer chooses to reward them for.  In the wild, animals don’t need to perform to get food or to be entertained.  They can hunt, socialize or find something to play with on their own timeline, at their choosing.  Their lives and choices are not dictated by human “caregivers” in the wild.  In captivity, the offer of food or a toy is the most interesting thing that happens all day in a tank otherwise devoid of any sensory or social stimulation.  While Halloween is a fun time for people (kids and adults alike) to get dressed up and ask for food, captive whales and dolphins beg for food on a daily basis.  It’s a “trick-FOR-treat” system, and it’s not fair to these highly intelligent and social beings.  Imagine if you asked every costumed child who visited your house today to entertain you before you rewarded them with candy – fortunately for those kids, their version of “trick-or-treat” focuses on the treat first, and the trick is (usually) just an empty threat.

 

Proponents of captivity argue that their training method of “positive reinforcement” provides important mental stimulation and exercise for their captive animals – performing tricks based on “natural behaviors” keeps the animals entertained and prevents them from getting bored.  That isn’t incorrect – captive animals should certainly be kept entertained and distracted from destructive behaviors like chewing on bars or the edges of tanks, swimming in bored circles, or picking on tankmates outside their natural social circle.  But these animals shouldn’t need to be entertained or distracted from boredom.  The very circumstance of being in captivity forces the necessity for entertainment; in the wild, the ever-changing environment provides more than enough “entertainment” to keep belugas, orcas, and other whales and dolphins mentally and physically stimulated.  Just the act of living, using “natural behaviors” naturally to find food or mates, and to travel or play, is enough for wild individuals.

 

The tricks performed in captivity are said to be based on the animals’ natural behaviors.  But when was the last time a wild orca balanced a person on their back and then launched them off their nose?  Belugas in the wild don’t leap out of the water in breaches or juggle toys, but in captivity there are trained to do so and reinforced with food.  They perform tricks to receive a treat.  Former trainers have described occasions when food is withheld from orcas to encourage behaviors and cooperation during important shows.  The animals are not being starved – you can’t just not feed an animal that eats up to 500lbs of food per day (for the average orca; the smaller belugas eat 44-66lbs per day) – but they can make the animal hungry enough that they will do as asked to be able to eat.

 

The “trick-for-treat” system used by oceanariums makes this a very unhappy Halloween for captive whales and dolphins – and it’s just another day for them.  The scariest part of this Halloween is that more belugas are at risk of suffering this unhappy fate.  Please help WDC keep these belugas wild, safe, and free by telling the Georgia Aquarium and their sponsors NO to importing wild Russian belugas, and check out our weekly beluga fun fact!