The Whale Sanctuary Project: Saying No Thanks to Tanks

An interview with Lori Marino about the poor well-being of captive cetaceans.

Posted Jul 27, 2017

The Whale Sanctuary Project is not about making life difficult for aquariums that hold cetaceans. It is about creating a path forward for all.

Animals kept in terrestrial and water zoos — zooed animals — clearly are not living anything that resembles a normal life. They suffer from all sorts of psychological and physical disorders and have lost the freedom to make choices and to control their own lives. This piece and interview is a nice follow-up to an essay I wrote about an international meeting at the Detroit Zoo at which pro-zoos, ambivalent about zoos, and anti-zoos participants discussed many issues at hand (for more details please see "It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain" and links therein) and a recent interview I did with Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria (Australia) called "Zoo Ethics and the Challenges of Compassionate Conservation." It also nicely follows on the heels of an interview I did about the forthcoming Charter for Animal Compassion

Among the topics discussed at the meeting and in my interview was turning zoos into sanctuaries that are more for the individual animals. Because I fully support this move I was pleased when neuroscientist and cetacean expert Dr. Lori Marino, President and Chairperson of the board of The Whale Sanctuary Project, agreed to do an interview about this exciting new venture. The mission of The Whale Sanctuary Project "is to establish a model seaside sanctuary where cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can live in an environment that maximizes well-being and autonomy and is as close as possible to their natural habitat." Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you and others found The Whale Sanctuary Project?

We founded the Whale Sanctuary Project in 2016 because it became absolutely clear that, despite the mounting evidence for poor well-being in orcas, belugas and other cetaceans at marine parks, there was no existing alternative. So it was equally apparent that the next step in efforts to phase out the keeping of these animals in tanks was to create a permanent seaside sanctuary. Permanent sanctuaries exist for captive elephants, primates, bears, and members of all sorts of other species and there is no reason why that model could not be applied to captive cetaceans.

Many people ask why we cannot just release all of the captive dolphins and whales into the ocean. While I understand the sentiment, most captive cetaceans are not good candidates for release because they have either been born in captivity or been in the tanks for decades and lack the life skills necessary to survive on their own. There are a couple of individual whales, such as Corky at SeaWorld San Diego and Tokitae (Lolita) at SeaWorld Orlando, who may be releasable (because we know where their natal groups are) but it is difficult to say anything definitive at this point.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that Corky, Tokitae and all the other whales living in concrete tanks, can enjoy a much better quality of life in a seaside sanctuary. There is no question that a sanctuary will provide much more of what they need to thrive than any marine park or aquarium can. And we hope for a day when sanctuaries will only house free-ranging individuals who need rehabilitative care and no longer be needed to retire whales from the display industry.

This is not a matter of deriding the intentions of the care staff at aquariums and zoos.  Rather, it is a matter of acknowledging that there is a deep incompatibility between cetacean nature and living in a concrete tank.  And that is the bottom line. It is just not who they are. And that is the case whether they are taken from the wild or born in tanks. We know this because of the high rates of infection and behavioral abnormalities, and the short lifespans, all pointing to the same conclusion – lack of thriving.

What are your main objectives?

Our mission is to create a permanent seaside sanctuary for orcas and beluga whales where they can be provided with an environment that is as close as possible to their natural habitat, while still receiving care and protection from us.

Our goals include creating a model sanctuary for cetaceans and providing a blueprint, through education, transparency and the sharing of information, for an alternative to concrete tanks. It is important to stress that the Whale Sanctuary Project is not about just providing a better life for 6-8 orcas or beluga whales. While that is clearly the case the Project itself represents something much broader: a new way of relating to cetaceans. It is, in my view, about shifting our relationship with the natural world from one of objectification and exploitation to one of respect and restitution.

I look forward to the sanctuary being a place where we can provide authentic education about these animals, why they belong in the ocean, and why it is important to protect and conserve the oceans and the life within them.

How has it been received by people within the zoo business and those outside of it?

The response from much of the public and the scientific community has been very positive. There are some progressive leaders in the zoo and aquarium business who understand that sanctuaries are a much better alternative for dolphins and whales, and other wild animals. But there are not enough of these individuals coming forth.

The sanctuary concept for dolphins and whales is still largely being fought against by the aquarium industry. We are confident, however, that the zoo and aquarium business sees the “writing on the wall” and knows that they will need to change. We are ready and willing to work with any marine parks or aquariums who truly want to end keeping orcas and other whales in tanks – as long as there are no strings attached. The Whale Sanctuary Project is not about making life difficult for aquariums that hold cetaceans. It is about creating a path forward for all.

With that said, I remain concerned that representatives of the zoo and aquarium business are still creating false justifications for their practices. They still maintain that seeing wild animals on display has educational value or contributes to conservation actions. There is not a shred of scientific support for this contention.

One of the ways to understand this ongoing pretense is to realize that the priority for any zoo or aquarium is ticket sales. If visitors do not come through the doors, they will close. This means that all other priorities – including the needs of individual animals – are secondary. There can only be one priority, by definition.

An authentic sanctuary is different because the priority is the individual animals and who they are, what they need and want, and what is best for their well-being.  Everything else is designed around that central focus.

Zoos and aquariums have a long way to go to recognize that individuals matter. For instance, when I read your recent interview with Jenny Gray and she refused to condemn the killing of so-called “surplus animals” like Marius the giraffe who was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo, I realized that there is still a fundamental mismatch in ideology (and, yes, ethics) between zoos and aquariums, on the one hand, and sanctuaries on the other. [Marius was a young and healthy giraffe who was killed because he didn't fit into the zoo's captive breeding program. Later, at the same zoo, four lions were killed for the same reason. The man who made these decisions has been called a hero.]

The “captivity issue” is not just about welfare (finding the best way to care for animals while still using them as a means to an end). It is about the natural rights of all animals to live their lives on their own terms. As, Marc, you’ve said many times, compassionate conservation is not just “welfarism gone wild.” It actually necessitates taking a rights-based stance towards the other animals if it is to have any meaning at all. And the traditional model of the zoo and aquarium industry is incompatible with that stance.

Please tell readers about some of your successes.

Since our incorporation as a non-profit organization the Whale Sanctuary Project has reached a number of important milestones. We have a ten-year strategic and financial plan, a strong advisory committee of experts, a great Board of Directors, and we are in the process of completing the site selection process. All of this has been made possible so far by generous donors and our main benefactor, Munchkin, Inc. Next year we hope to be in the process of procuring and developing the sanctuary site and, with more help and support, open and ready to care for orcas and/or belugas sometime in 2019.

The key to success is creating the best team in the world. I am proud to say that we have done that. And we welcome others who share our vision.

What are some of your other projects?

No effort exists in a vacuum and that is certainly the case with the Whale Sanctuary Project. The issue of keeping healthy dolphins and whales on display in tanks exploded with the film Blackfish, in which I was privileged to be interviewed, and has spawned a cultural movement manifested in a number of efforts around the world.  The Whale Sanctuary Project is clearly part of that global movement.

I am also working to support bill S-203 in Canada, which would make it illegal to bring in additional healthy dolphins and whales for display at marine parks. And. with colleagues, I am working on several scientific papers on topics such as the psychological health of captive marine mammals to the false claims of the dolphin-assisted therapy industry. 

Going a bit further afield, I continue to work with Farm Sanctuary on The Someone Project, which is a wonderful ongoing project involving researching and publishing about the intelligence, sensitivities, and social complexities of farmed animals in order to help educate the public that farmed animals are not something, they’re someone.

And, through the Kimmela Center, I continue to work on scholar-advocacy issues. It’s important to reach upcoming generations of scientists, scholars and experts who want to apply their education and skills to advocate on behalf of other animals. 

All of these efforts are about changing our views about the other animals from one of superiority to one of parity. It’s not all about us!


Thank you very much, Lori, for this most informative interview. Efforts like The Whale Sanctuary Project give me hope for the future. It's essential that we pay careful attention to the well-being of individual animals, and your forward-looking and most-needed project does just that.

Clearly, the status quo is unacceptable. In my interview with Jenny Gray we discussed what she wrote in her book Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation about how few zoos are trying to run ethical operations. I was astounded when I read the numbers. On page 208 Ms. Gray wrote, "Unfortunately the bulk of zoos in existence today still fall short of meeting the requirements of ethical operations. At best, 3% of zoos are striving to meet ethical standards, with perhaps only a handful meeting all the requirements. But there is hope" This means, of course, that around 97 percent of zoos today don't even strive "to meet ethical standards."

I don't see much hope at all given the current state of affairs, and that's why I embrace your project. We are the lifelines for other animals. We need to do all we can on their behalf so that they can live in peace and safety and with the respect and dignity they fully deserve because of who they truly are, namely, deeply feeling beings who care about what happens to them, their families, and their friends. It's an understatement to say that other animals need all the help they can get in an increasingly human-dominated world. Thank you for your efforts.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at