Are Dolphin & Whale Displays Educational?

Lori Marino from the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Center for Ethics, Emory University and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy debates the educational value of marine mammal displays:

Most of us know the standard claim of the marine park industry. It goes something like this: “When you come to see dolphins and whales in captivity you are being educated. And education leads to attitude change and conservation of these animals in the wild.” There are several assumptions the marine parks want you to make. One is that dolphin and whale displays are educational. The second is that the alleged education leads to an increased motivation to protect the animals. And the third is that this attitude change leads to actual behaviour that helps conserve the animals in the wild. That’s a tall order! I’ve been a college educator for over 16 years and I daresay that none of my faculty colleagues (nor I) would ever make such a zealous assertion about the impact of our classroom teaching where we actually present accurate information, help students analyse it, and measure performance with tests and assignments. Yet, the marine park industry resolutely asserts that they are in the business of education; they know that education provides a credible reason for confining these intelligent animals in their facilities as “ambassadors” for their wild counterparts. And education is something they know no one opposes.

But what is the evidence that visiting dolphin and whale displays is educational in any real sense? Let’s leave aside the fact that much of the information fed to the public by marine parks about dolphins and whales is inaccurate. If dolphin and whale displays are indeed educational then there should be sufficient evidence for learning and attitude change that support this conclusion. In fact, to date, there is none. The studies that the marine park industry relies upon to support their claims of education are characterised by one common weakness; the studies typically involve asking visitors whether they think they have been educated. But they do not actually test knowledge. The marine park industry cites several polls to make their argument. One of these is known as the 1998 Roper Poll, which simply showed that after visiting animal displays people believed they appreciated the animals more. But there were no questions assessing knowledge or attitude change. Moreover, this poll was commissioned by none other than SeaWorld! Another poll that is often cited in defence of the educational claim is the 2005 Harris Poll. Like the Roper Poll, the Harris Poll only assessed visitors’ beliefs and perceptions, not whether they actually learnt anything after seeing the displays. The poll does not ask respondents about the specific knowledge they have gained, or what specific conservation actions they will undertake after visiting an animal display. So, again, none of these efforts can be used to claim that dolphin and whale displays (or displays of other captive animals) have real educational value. 

The Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) conducted the largest study of visitors to zoos and aquaria and published their study, entitled “Why Zoos Matter: Assessing the impact of a visit to a zoo or aquarium”, online in 2007. It was not a peer-reviewed study, which means that it was never analysed by other experts to determine if it is worthy of publication in a refereed scientific journal. Instead, the AZA published their results on their own website. The authors of the AZA study concluded that visiting zoos and aquaria enhances understanding of wildlife and impacts feelings and attitudes towards conservation. However, in a methodological analysis of the AZA study published in 2010 in the peer-reviewed journal, Society & Animals, my co-authors and I found that these conclusions are entirely unwarranted. In other words, the methods used in the AZA study were too deeply flawed to warrant such conclusions. Moreover, when all was said and done, the actual reported gains in knowledge reported by visitors to zoos and aquaria were disappointing. The authors found that: “there was no overall statistically significant change in understanding…” (p. 10). That is, the authors of the AZA study found no significant gains in general knowledge resulting from zoo or aquarium visits. So, despite the bewildering claims of the AZA, this study did not show that visiting animal displays is educational or promotes attitude change. To date, there have been no other studies that have demonstrated the educational value of zoo and aquarium displays.

So what are we to make of the ongoing claim of the marine park industry that dolphin and whale displays are educational? It is a claim without substance. Given that the rest of the assumptions about attitude change and conservation they ask us to accept rest upon the education assertion, the entire justification given by marine parks for capturing and confining dolphins and whales for display is baseless. It is up to the public to demand support for claims made by the marine park industry and to require that marine parks (and other zoos) stop making excuses for what is, in the end, the exploitation of dolphins and whales for entertainment purposes only.