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Aquatic mammals in zoos are not a distinct zoological group, but might include the ‘real’ aquatic mammals, whales and dolphins, as well as ‘swimming mammals’ like seals and sealions, otters, and rodents such as beavers, coypus, and capybaras. Other mammals that might sometimes be thought of aquatic could include hippopotamuses, tapirs, and even water buffalos, or polar bears. Clearly there are difficulties in generalising about a group of animals this diverse.

Dolphins and whales

Dolphins and whales are a group of animals that attract a great deal of controversy whenever they are kept in zoos. In recent years.  Large Oceanaria in the United States, like the ones in San Diego and Miami have built their successes solely upon the huge drawing power of animals like the Orca – the so called ‘killer whale’.  In Britain nearly every collection that once kept dolphins, like  Whipsnade, Knowsley, Woburn and the West Midland Safari Park have all relinquished their exhibits. Conservationists object to the principle of keeping animals which show very little chance of breeding in small pools, and which often involve hazards to the animals in capture from the wild. The severest critics of dolphinaria in recent years have been organisations like Greenpeace and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. They have pointed out that the life expectancy of captive dolphins is less than seven years, compared to thirty years or more in the wild. They draw attention to the dramatic difference between the freedom and space of the open seas, and the cramped limitations of a tiled pool. Dolphins and whales live in a sonic environment, communicating and navigating with clicks and whistles and echo-location. What a harsh and sterile and featureless environment the best of zoo pools must be to such an animal when compared to the open oceans. Dolphins and whales are intelligent, sensitive, social animals. Hundreds of them are still captured from the seas every year for Sea Worlds and Dolphinaria all around the world, and the survival rate of captured dolphins is pitifully low. The most unfortunate asset that the dolphin possesses, the conservationists say, is its smile. It is not a human smile, despite its appearance, and it creates the impression of a happy, contented animal. The truth may be very different.

Zoos with dolphins assert that their animals are ambassadors for their species in the wild, and few people can fail to be moved by the almost unbelievable skill and intelligence of dolphins in a dolphin show. Not everyone is convinced, however, and controversy about the morality or otherwise of keeping captive dolphins is bound to continue. Some European and American zoos have succeeded in breeding and rearing dolphins in large pools.

Seals and sealions

With the move away from dolphins, some zoos and oceanaria have brought in sealions to fill their empty pools. Like dolphins sealions can be trained to perform for the crowds. Two points of view seem to be held about the best way to keep and display sealions. The more traditional zoos believe that both sealions and visitors prefer regular circus shows – balancing balls, performing handstands, and barking for fish. They will argue that the sealions clearly enjoy the shows, and can sometimes point to breeding successes to justify their attitude.

Other zoos prefer untrained sealions, in family groups.  Zoos that have taken this approach, like Chester Zoo in England,  also end up with an enormously entertaining exhibit, particularly if the sealions have a large, deep, landscaped pool. The attraction at these zoos comes from the natural activity and boisterous interaction of the sealions. Family groups in large pools can be used at feeding time, to give an entertaining display, and this type of ‘sealion encounter’ can often teach us more about the biology and behaviour of the animals than any number of circus tricks will ever do.

Perhaps, however, each school of thought could learn from the other. A live commentary at feeding time could enhance the experience at some zoos, while zoos that keep performing sealions could benefit from enlarged pools, and natural beaches. There are around fifty California sealions and a dozen Patagonian sealions in British Zoos. Only one or two of each species are born and reared every year, probably not enough to maintain the current zoo population. To breed sealions successfully a zoo really needs a quiet breeding beach, and offshow pens with some means of separating the adults. Good zoos are now cooperating in a management scheme for sealions which aims to improve the breeding successes by the sensible grouping of animals at good facilities.

Other swimmers

Mammals and birds that swim have the potential to be exciting, dynamic, zoo exhibits. But although many zoos have underwater viewing for their penguin pools, this idea is not often copied for their swimming mammals. In fact, many zoo enclosures rather under-value the swimming behaviour of animals like tapirs, capybaras, or even talapoin monkeys. Oceanopolis in Brest on the Atlantic coast of France has huge tanks for harbour seals with real wave action and underwater viewing. San Diego Zoo has crystal clear water for viewing the hippos. Large bodies of water in an enclosure can be difficult and often expensive to maintain in a clean and safe way, and many zoos tackle this problem in a rather half-hearted way. Pools are often either too small, or make very little provision for effective viewing.

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