A study says bottlenose dolphins confined in recreational facilities are happy to interact with their trainers more than playing with toys or when allowed to do things on their own.
For the study, a team of French scientists observed the bottlenose dolphins that are being held in Parc Astérix, a theme park with the largest dolphinariums in France.
The team concluded that bottlenose dolphins, kept for recreational purposes, are more motivated and eager to play with humans than toys.
Dolphins' Happiness Measured By Scientists
Dr. Isabella Clegg, the lead researcher for the study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, explained that experiments they conducted were specifically designed to decode dolphins' behavior. Through representational toys and physical stimulus, the team aimed to measure how captive dolphins truly feel in their habitat.
"We wanted to find out what activities in captivity they like most," Clegg explained. Their study could become the first to analyze how captivity really feels like from the perspective of the animals themselves.
The scientists from the University of Paris monitored the animals in three different settings: putting toys for them to play in the water, having them play with a familiar trainer, and allowing them to play as they wished. For each of the setting, the scientists played a corresponding sound to signal the animals about which of the activities await them.
Their observation revealed that captive dolphins do their "spy hopping" enthusiastically when they heard the sound signaling that they will be playing with their trainers. "Spy hopping" is when dolphins emerge their heads from the water as if trying to see what is happening.
The dolphins being monitored for the study behaved less enthusiastic when they heard the signal that they will be playing with toys or will be swimming as they wished.
Ultimately, the team concluded that a good quality bonding between humans and animals will lead to better animal welfare.
Are The Dolphins Really Happy?
Birgitta Mercera, the person who manages the dolphinarium at the Parc Astérix, surmised that dolphins' happiness depends on how they were raised.
"I think that wild dolphins are happier in the wild, and captive-born dolphins are much happier in captivity," she said. She added that dolphins born in facilities should stay in the facilities with humans to take care of them.
Dr. Susanne Schultz from the University of Manchester argued that dolphins' pleasant interaction with humans is not enough basis to say that they will choose captivity over their natural habitat in the wild. Schultz has been studying the social behavior of wild marine mammals.
David Lusseau, professor of behavioral biology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, echoed the same opinion. He has been working with bottlenose dolphins for nearly 25 years.
Lusseau explained that "spy-hopping" is a natural tendency among the dolphins when they are curious about what is happening on the surface of the water. The behavior has nothing to do with the animals being happy, he emphasized.