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Life‑sized Robot Dolphins Designed to Replace Real Dolphins in Captivity

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Jul 16, 2020

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This image represents an actual, animatronic dolphin. (Image Credit: Damian Patkowski)

Developers have designed robot dolphins as an ethical alternative to keeping real dolphins in captivity for exhibition and interaction.

Entrepreneurs in New Zealand collaborated with Hollywood’s special effects professionals to develop these life-sized, robotic bottlenose dolphins with battery lives of up to 10 hours. While the robot dolphins are expensive, they do not require the upkeep costs of real dolphins. “The marine park industry has had falling revenues for over a decade due to ethical concerns and the cost of live animals, yet the public hunger to learn about and experience these animals is still as strong as ever. We believe that it’s time to reimagine this industry and that this approach can be more humane, and more profitable at the same time,” Roger Holzberg, one of the dolphin designers, told The Guardian. In fact, some Chinese corporations have already agreed to replace real dolphins in their aquariums with these. PETA has welcomed the change too.

Reportedly, the robot dolphins are so indiscernible from the real ones that a test audience wasn’t able to tell the difference. However, the very fact that an animatronic replacement for dolphins had to be designed, lays bare the human interest that has led to animals being kept in captivity their whole lives — simply so that we can derive momentary pleasure from interacting with them. Ethicists have argued for a long time that living in confinement in zoos and aquariums diminishes animals’ quality of life. And, as in the case of dolphins, living in small, prison-like pools can reduce their lifespans too: bottlenose dolphins can live for 30 to 50 years in the wild; in captivity, they live for less than 20 years.


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Can human entertainment truly ever justify keeping animals in captivity? Those in favor of zoos and aquariums argue that these establishments help people, and especially children, learn about animals and biodiversity. But, reports suggest that the quality of educational programs pertaining to zoos, as well as the lessons derived from them, are highly questionable. Pro-zoo lobbyists argue that these spaces also aid in the conservation of species and their habitats. Research has shown that many species being bred there are neither endangered, nor threatened, and further, some of these species suffer greatly in enclosed spaces, develop zoochosis, or life-threatening diseases, and sometimes, because of multiple ailments, cannot reproduce.

But, in addition to the debate around captivity, there’s also the matter of cruelty. In the case of dolphins, programs that allow dolphin-“lovers” to swim with them, have often invited critiques from animal rights groups that animals are being mistreated. (Allegations range from dolphins being inbred and forcibly inseminated when they are too young to breed, fed nutrient-deficient frozen fish, to being made to perform under stressful conditions, or that they are drugged.) “[They] live in misery long after travelers return home with their pictures and memories,” PETA said.

But dolphins aren’t alone. “A healthy and happy tiger does not pose for selfies. So training must start immediately,” a trainer from Thailand‘s Tiger Kingdom, where tourists are allowed to pet tigers, explained. But, this “training” not only involves physical abuse, but also, allegedly, declawing and drugging. Elephants, snakes, and bears also endure similar forms of abuse at tourist attractions for human entertainment. In 2019, National Geographic had found injured, bleeding, infected animals at these sites. In fact, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) reported that most of these animals are either killed for medicines, or abandoned eventually, to make way for the next money-making animal.

While we may have found a win-win alternative in the case of dolphins, it is unlikely that every other animal we exploit for our entertainment, will be greeted by the same fate. And that begs the question: Is that selfie really worth it?

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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