How robots could end animal captivity in zoos and marine parks

Could robotic dolphins help marine parks become more humane spaces where people can learn about and connect with nature?
Watch on YouTube

Could robotic dolphins help marine parks become more humane spaces where people can learn about and connect with nature? 

Edge Innovations thinks so. The special effects company has spent decades creating some of Hollywood’s most memorable robotic animals, like the orca from “Free Willy” and the snake from “Anaconda”. Now, the company is hoping its expertise in animatronics can spark a paradigm shift in how we think about marine parks.

“It’s easy to kind of demonize the marine park industry as a whole, but we don’t think that’s the answer,” special effects artist and Edge Innovations founder Walt Conti told Freethink. “We just want to transition them to the future in a much more sustainable way.”

Phasing out cetacean captivity

The first step toward that future could be Delle, an 8.5-foot-long, 600-pound robotic dolphin that’s able to swim semi-autonomously using simple AI, or remotely under control of a human operator.

Delle swims and behaves so naturally that some audiences — and the fish it shares tanks with — can’t distinguish it from the real animal. 

Simulating a dolphin’s graceful movements with machinery and computers was no easy feat. To build a robotic dolphin, Conti and his colleagues studied hours of videos of dolphins, analyzing how different parts of the animal contribute to acceleration, torque, and other locomotive abilities. The development process was both science and art. 

“Inside they’re all machines,” Conti told Freethink. “But what makes a dolphin — or an orca, or a shark, or a beluga — distinctive is actually the art and the knowledge that we bring to it.”

From an industry perspective, what’s probably most alluring about robotic dolphins isn’t what they can do, but what they don’t need: food, sleep, training, and veterinary care. That’s not to say robotic dolphins are cheap: Delle costs between $3 to $5 million, while a live dolphin can cost marine parks about $100,000. 

The key difference is that the costs of robotic dolphins are front-loaded. 

“The cost of entry of animatronic animals is significantly more than buying their live counterparts,” Roger Holzberg, head of Experience Design at Edge Innovations, told Freethink. “But over a 10-year lifespan, it saves many, many tens of millions of dollars to only have to plug your animals in at night to recharge.”

It’s too early to determine exactly how much money marine parks could save with robotic dolphins, but making the switch would almost certainly save massive amounts of suffering among these smart, social sea creatures. 

The mysterious intelligence of dolphins

Delle, the robotic dolphin, is so convincing that people, turtles, and fish often think it’s a real animal. But real dolphins aren’t fooled. After all, dolphins are among the smartest creatures on the planet, boasting an encephalization quotient — which is brain mass compared to body mass — that’s second only to humans. 

Dolphins descend from hoofed mammals that walked the Earth approximately 50 million years ago before transitioning into the oceans. Modern dolphins —  which belong to the mammalian infraorder called cetaceans — have evolved the ability to use echolocation, communicate through unique “signature whistles”, and recognize themselves in mirrors, a demonstration of self-awareness.

Dolphins possess similar levels of intelligence to advanced primates. But the evolution of their brains took a much different path. 

There’s no shortage of examples of dolphin intelligence. When considering the range of their capabilities, the flips and tricks dolphins perform at marine parks are the tip of the iceberg.

“In particular, the cetacean cerebral cortex (the part of the brain involved in higher-order cognition) evolved along a very different trajectory than other mammals, resulting in a highly unusual arrangement of functional areas and an entirely unique structure, the paralimbic lobe,” wrote Lori Marino, a neurobiologist who helped form The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.

In humans, the limbic system is largely responsible for processing emotions and memory. The fact that dolphins seem to have a uniquely expansive and complex limbic system suggests their social and emotional capabilities may be unlike anything else in the animal kingdom. Observations of dolphin behavior support that idea.

Dolphins have been known to cheat, for example. At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, dolphins would get treats when they picked up litter in pools and brought it to trainers. One cunning dolphin, named Kelly, figured that she could maximize her winnings by tearing up one piece of litter, hiding the shreds under a rock at the bottom of the pool, and periodically exchanging them for fish treats. 

Kelly also got treats — even more, in fact — when she snagged birds and brought them to the trainers. So, she started saving her fish treats and using them to lure and catch gulls. She eventually taught the trick to other dolphins.

In Australia’s Shark Bay, bottlenose dolphins have been observed wearing sponges on their noses to protect themselves while foraging amid rocks and sharp corals, an example of tool-use that likely originated from one “Sponging Eve” dolphin, researchers proposed. In other words, the technique was passed down generationally through cultural transmission. 

Dolphin culture sometimes mixes with ours. In Brazil, wild dolphins and fishermen have formed a unique alliance in which dolphins herd fish toward the shores, where fishermen are waiting with nets. When close enough to the nets, the dolphins give a signal by slapping their tails on the water. The fishermen cast the nets. Some of the fish then break away from their school, which makes it easier for the dolphins to catch them. 

Dolphins aren’t smiling 

At marine parks, dolphins may seem to be smiling when they’re interacting with trainers and parkgoers. But that’s an anatomical illusion.

Captive dolphins arguably have few reasons to smile when you compare their living conditions to their wild relatives.

In oceans, dolphins swim between 40 to 80 miles per day as they hunt, play, and rest within home ranges, which can exceed 40 square miles. Captive dolphins are often kept in tanks the size of a movie-theater screen. The walls may be barren and concrete, conditions which likely “inhibit or discourage the natural use of [dolphins’] acoustic abilities,” wrote the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

The cramped quarters can be dangerous when combined with aggressive behavior. Sarah Fischbeck, a former water quality diver at SeaWorld San Diego, said she once witnessed a group of male dolphins harassing a baby calf. The calf got scared, fled into a wall, and died. The mother wouldn’t leave her baby. 

“She was just calling and swimming in circles, super distressed. Her calf was just lying there dead,” Fischbeck told The Dodo. “They couldn’t separate the mother from the baby so they had to drain the pool. […] She would not leave her calf and they drained the water around her.”

There are clear behavioral differences between captive and wild dolphins. Captive dolphins spend 80% of their time at the surface, while wild dolphins spend the same portion underwater. Captive dolphins also swim in repeated patterns, pay extraordinary amounts of anticipatory attention to trainers who feed them, and can become aggressive with their handlers and, occasionally, tourists. What’s more, marine parks have dolphins do tricks like beach themselves on platforms, a potentially injurious behavior not observed in the wild.

Some studies have found that dolphins have much shorter lifespans in captivity. For example, Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA reports that captive dolphins have an average lifespan of about 13 years, compared to about 40 years in the wild. But other research suggests captive dolphins actually live longer than their wild relatives, perhaps due to improving medical care in recent decades. 

Reimaging marine parks and zoos

Marine parks aren’t all doom and gloom. They help educate people about marine animals while offering up-close encounters with sea creatures that would otherwise be inaccessible to most people. Such experiences arguably help people connect with and care more about the animals, and they potentially boost awareness about human practices that threaten marine life: overfishing, pollution, disturbances from boats, etc.

More broadly, marine parks and zoos contribute some of their revenue toward conservation and research efforts. SeaWorld, for example, has helped rescue thousands of injured and orphaned animals, and currently donates more than $1 million to conservation programs each year. (SeaWorld reported a net income of about $90 million in 2019).

As Americans become increasingly concerned over animal captivity, replacing live animals with convincing robots could become the most reasonable — and economical — solution. In addition to reducing animal suffering, this transformation could actually improve the ways zoos and marine parks educate people about the animal kingdom. 

After all, robots can be programmed to perform specific behavior sequences over and over again. Captive animals are only in it for the reward.

“There’s no eye contact, there’s no emotional engagement,” Holzberg told Freethink. “With our animatronic creatures, [young park-goers bond with them] in a way that that kid is never going to forget, and our hope is that that love and that feeling is going to make her want to protect those animals when she grows up.”

If robotic dolphins can replace captive dolphins in marine parks, the possibilities for other recreations could be endless: tarantulas, anacondas, lions, even dinosaurs. 

“We’d love to bring back the Jurassic seas,” Conti told Freethink. “There was incredible marine life in the oceans hundreds of millions of years ago that disappeared. We live on a fragile planet, and we want to use that experience of recreating the past oceans to let people be entertained and enjoy, but point out the fact that nothing is given. These things are fragile.”

Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories