An analysis of TripAdvisor’s new ill-advised dolphin and whale policy

Animal reproduction in zoos and aquariums is good for welfare

What does it mean to be an expert?

This should be an easy question to answer. An expert is a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. A surgeon who has performed 2,000 heart surgeries is unquestionably an expert. A long-haul truck driver who has logged 1000’s of hours driving is an expert. How about a teacher who has spent 10 years in the classroom or a zookeeper who has worked with animals for 20 years? Are they experts? Yes, but perhaps their true expertise can be found in a particular part of the job. For example, a zookeeper who has primarily worked with birds would not have the expertise in caring for tigers, but they would still be more of an animal expert than a lawyer. However, what if the lawyer loves animals and through research of animal law cases found themselves believing that animals deserve personhood. The lawyer has never actually spent time with an animal but takes on cases that advance animal rights. Now is that lawyer an expert in animals?

There has been a surge in what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect during our internet information age. This occurs when individuals’ lack of knowledge about a particular subject leads them to inaccurately gauge their expertise on that subject. Ignorance of one’s own ignorance can lead people who lack knowledge on a subject think of themselves as more expert than those who are comparatively better informed.

This used to be called overconfidence and was a negative trait. Today overconfidence thrives on social media. The more overconfident you are the more followers and money you can make but mistakes become much more costly.

TripAdvisor’s new dolphin and whale policy

According to a press release on October 2, 20191: “TripAdvisor, the travel platform trusted by millions of consumers worldwide, will no longer sell tickets to, or generate revenue from, any attraction that continues to contribute to the captivity of future generations of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises)… “

Managed contact with dolphins and whales can be positive for both animals and humans

TripAdvisor states that the company made the decision after a consultation process with experts including marine biologists, zoologists and conservationists.

“The extensive evidence presented to us by the experts was compelling.  Whales and dolphins do not thrive in limited captive environments, and we hope to see a future where they live as they should – free and in the wild,” commented Dermot Halpin, President, TripAdvisor Experiences and Rentals. 

For the new policy TripAdvisor states: “We will no longer sell bookable experiences to attractions that continue to contribute to the captivity of future generations of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).”

To remain eligible to advertise or have tickets sold on TripAdvisor a zoo/aquarium must follow these criteria:

  • Cease and prevent the breeding of cetaceans in its care
  • Cease the importation of captive cetaceans from other facilities for public display
  • Cease the capture and importation of wild cetaceans for public display

TripAdvisor’s Experts

Happy, healthy in the care of humans

I’ve reached out to TripAdvisor inquiring about the list of experts that were consulted; so far I’ve received no communication. In the press release they provide quotes from “third party experts”, some of which say they were consulted, so I’m going to assume that these are the experts. The list contains some familiar names that frequently, if not always, are associated with anti-zoo and aquarium rhetoric and activism.

“…Whales and dolphins cannot thrive in captivity and enlightened tourists no longer tolerate exploiting these intelligent and socially complex marine predators for human entertainment…” said Naomi Rose, Animal Welfare Institute.

Naomi Rose has one non-peer reviewed thesis paper on killer whales (The social dynamics of male killer whales, Orcinus orca) where she observed whales from a boat in British Columbia. From 1988-1992, she logged 135 hours of whale watching of Johnstone Strait killer whales. Her results section is one paragraph in length where she observed 33 instances of older male killer whales interacting with juvenile killer whales while the mother was more than 10 meters away. Those interactions were primarily sociosexual in nature, and she suggests that the males are allofathering in her discussion. She has one peer-reviewed scientific paper from 1991 (Sexual behavior of male northern elephant seals: III. The mounting of weaned pups). The remainder of her papers are animal activist in nature calling for an end of captivity.

“…Together we can ensure this is the last generation of dolphins held captive for entertainment…” said Nick Stewart, Global Head of Wildlife, Dolphins, World Animal Protection.

Nick Stewart is a marketing and businessman with no scientific background.

“…Breeding bans will avoid another generation of cetaceans suffering, whilst sanctuaries will provide the best care for those that remain in captivity and who cannot be released into the wild…” said Ingrid N. Visser, Orca Research Trust.

Ingrid Visser runs a tour operation where she lets tourists pay her money to swim with wild killer whales.

“…We took part in the consultation process TripAdvisor conducted before they came to this decision, and we are pleased they listened to our advice…” said Rob Lott, Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Rob Lott has a master’s degree in marine mammal science where he observed dolphins in Cardigan Bay, Wales for his thesis. Aside from that one non-peer reviewed thesis, his name appears on animal activist papers.  

“…A life in captivity is no life for a dolphin or whale, so this announcement from TripAdvisor sends yet another strong message to the wider travel industry that this form of tourism is no longer acceptable…” said Dylan Walker, World Cetacean Alliance.

Dylan Walker is the CEO for World Cetacean Alliance and is labeled as “an author”. I couldn’t find any peer-review papers. His name appears as an author on a pamphlet for responsible whale watching put out by his company.

“…In consultation with PETA, TripAdvisor has once again established itself as an industry leader, evolving its policy to give the best possible advice: Never buy a ticket to any place where orcas, dolphins, or other ocean-going mammals are kept captive for public display. TripAdvisor’s ethical decision moves cetaceans closer to a day when their captivity has ended and they have returned to their ocean homes…” said Tracy Reiman, PETA.

Tracy Reiman is PETA’s executive vice president where she oversees the organization’s campaign, marketing, corporate affairs, and youth outreach divisions. She has no scientific background. Reiman has been instrumental in creating and implementing new ways to mobilize young activists through online marketing and word-of-mouth campaigns, which have helped PETA develop the largest youth membership of any animal rights organization.

“…Science has revealed the immense suffering and early mortality imposed upon cetaceans exploited for captive public display. These facilities can also threaten real conservation efforts to save these animals in the wild…” said Toni Frohoff, Terramar Research.

Toni Frohoff is the only one who has spent time in the zoo and aquarium industry. In the early 1990’s she did some studies on early dolphin swim programs. Her work evolved from being somewhat scientific to full activism. She currently runs a non-profit relying on donations to free dolphins, whales and elephants. She has been quoted as saying that over the last thirty years we have experienced a paradigm shift in science, so that we don’t have to refer to “the internal state” of other animals, we can use words like “emotions” and “feelings.” …now many key scientists are on the bandwagon that other species have “consciousness” and even “personhood,” which is fabulous (Moon magazine).

TripAdvisor’s experts are not experts in modern zoos and aquariums, most have limited scientific backgrounds or none at all, and they all make money from anti-zoo and aquarium non-profits. Contrary to what is stated by the TripAdvisor’s “experts”, published peer-reviewed studies have shown that dolphins in aquariums live longer than those in the wild and enjoy interacting with humans. 2,3

There were no zoo and aquarium based researchers or veterinarians consulted by TripAdvisor.

How does TripAdvisor choose which experts to believe and endorse?

Dolphin Quest is a highly rated favorite experience for tourists on TripAdvisor

Tourists love to visit zoos and aquariums and those with dolphins and whales are frequently listed as top attractions on the TripAdvisor website. In 2017 Loro Parque was voted the best zoo in the world by TripAdvisor users. From a business standpoint it seems illogical for TripAdvisor to make a move that goes against their customer base, but from a shareholder standpoint it makes some sense. Stock price is down for TripAdvisor so the announcement of a new very emotionally based policy has an underlying objective, appeal to shareholders and encourage purchase of stock. As odd as it sounds, stocks go up and down ultimately based on “feelings”, so a press release full of emotions about how the company is standing up for “suffering” animals could work in their favor to improve shareholder confidence. As expected the announcement hit all the major news outlets giving TripAdvisor tons of press and attention. Time will tell if it works to improve their stocks.

TripAdvisor’s stock has been low for months leading up to the policy announcement

TripAdvisor, as well as every other travel, tourism and entertainment company, has been solicited by well-funded animal rights organizations for years to ban many different types of animal experiences. The ultimate goal of animal rights organizations is to end all animal and human contact. TripAdvisor was clearly convinced and never intended to make an actual informed decision for the policy. To be most effective, the message from TripAdvisor had to be clear that dolphins and whales in zoos and aquariums are “suffering”. This would get the attention of the press, and they would receive publicity. The experts they used to support their biased agenda are not experts in modern zoos and aquariums, but they are however experts in crafting stories, sounding scientific, getting attention and receiving donations.

Twist Science to Fit Your Narrative – Journalism and Animal Activism 101

Real science can be a major inconvenience to the media and donation seeking groups. Science can be difficult to understand, the message frequently unclear, the language complicated, it may not support your beliefs, the data can be conflicting and what seemed to be proven at one point can be disproven later. Research papers will make conclusions about the findings, but those conclusions may only be relevant to a particular set of variables and are not considered proof. It doesn’t make for a very exciting headline. This is why writers in the media will take a published paper and twist the information to fit a compelling narrative. The scarier or more controversial the headline is the better.

Take for example a recent paper published on monarch butterfly migration4 where the authors tested a few variables into what may negatively affect migration and directional orientation. The authors state that the paper had multiple limitations in data. They tested one lineage of commercially farmed monarchs raised for generations indoors and found those butterflies did not orient properly or fly in the right direction for migration. Wild caught locally sourced monarchs raised ‘in captivity” under natural conditions showed no problems orienting or migrating. The authors acknowledged that outside of this study other commercially farmed monarchs have been tagged and successfully migrated to Mexico. They go on to further state that rearing monarchs by school children and hobbyists is important for monarch conservation and should always continue. They recommend that when possible the monarchs be locally sourced and exposed to natural conditions for the best chance at migration.

Misleading headline

This paper was picked up by numerous science news and environmental organizations with headlines such as:

Monarch butterflies raised in captivity don’t migrate.

Hand-Reared Monarch Butterflies Don’t Migrate. The Atlantic.

Captive-bred monarchs don’t migrate.

The articles all proclaim that school children and their class monarch rearing projects are not only useless but leading to monarch death! This is not true!

Monarchs raised in “captivity” migrate safely to Mexico every year

The incorrect dramatic headlines that resulted from the paper was not the intention of the scientists who did the study! But a more realistic headline such as: Monarch migration abilities appear to vary depending on environmental conditions and genetics just doesn’t quite have the same “clickable” appeal.

Pseudoscience commonalities among groups seeking public donations

Science is much more likely to get public donations if there is an understandable problem, a definitive cause for the problem, a solution to fix the problem and is written in a way that is simplistic. This is also the recipe for any good news article, story, documentary, movie or non-profit looking for donations. Here is where the trouble comes in and where animal activism has similarities to other pseudoscientific movements that appeal to emotions, fears, morals or ethics under the disguise of science.

For example, animal activism shares the stage with the anti-vaccination movement and anti-GMO campaigns. They all have a good guy, a bad guy, lots of “scientific proof” and usually, if you look closely, the same “experts” are quoted over and over again. Those experts are often associated with a non-profit looking for donation dollars.

Many rational people have been convinced about the dangers of GMO’s even though science says otherwise.5

Scientists quietly battle anti-GMO activists with peer-reviewed papers that receive little press.6,7,8,9

“…the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory…”6

 “…We argue that the uncommonly high levels of opposition to genetically modified food in both the United States and in Europe can be attributed to the overwhelming success of the online visual campaign against GMOs…”7

There are also rational people who believe that vaccines are dangerous or cause autism despite the fact that science does not agree. Social media has been blamed for spreading misinformation and fear leading to the anti-vax movement.

“If there’s one thing about the anti-vaccine movement I’ve learned over the last several years, it’s that it’s almost completely immune to evidence, science, and reason. No matter how much evidence is arrayed against it, its spokespeople always finds a way to spin, distort, or misrepresent the evidence to combat it and not have to give up the concept that vaccines cause…” David Gorski / March 29, 201010

Finally there are rational people who believe that dolphins and whales don’t belong in zoos and aquariums regardless of the scientific data that disputes that belief.11,12,13,14

If a person wants to find “scientific proof” to support their feelings, values or beliefs, then the internet will not disappoint.

An expert is only an expert if you are buying what they are selling

My PhD is in dolphin reproductive biology and behavior, and I have conducted research (and published scientific papers) on the behavior, physiology and hormones of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals in zoos and aquariums for over 20 years. My latest research endeavors will take me into the field where I will be studying the effects of pollution, plastic, oil spills, and river runoff on marine animals and reproduction in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m also an animal welfare advocate and expert. I work as a reviewer for the scientific journal Animal Welfare and travel internationally to zoos and aquariums assessing and standardizing animal welfare and husbandry practices (nutrition, environment, enrichment, training, social grouping etc). I’m working to ensure proper population management practices are in place and to improve reproduction in key species. Zoo and aquarium breeding programs are the last hope for many endangered species. None of this qualifies me as an expert for TripAdvisor because it’s not the message they want to hear.

Dolphins and Whales Can Thrive in Zoos and Aquariums

Dolphins and whales can thrive under the care of humans and live a stimulating life full of positive experiences. A dolphin’s home is where they feel safe and have food, companionship, exercise and mental stimulation. It doesn’t matter if this home is a pool or an ocean lagoon; the key is proper management. It is true that not all zoos and aquariums are created equal and some do not provide proper care or welfare to the animals. This is where support of accredited facilities becomes important. Accreditation ensures that the best possible animal welfare is achieved along with continuing education and oversight by industry experts.

Every dolphin and whale in zoos and aquariums is cared for as an individual. It may be in their best interest to move from one facility to another in order to join a new social group or provide specific companionship for a particular animal. TripAdvisor’s poorly advised animal activist policy would restrict these freedoms causing undue poor welfare.

Denying dolphins and whales who are able and readily seek out reproduction opportunities will negatively affect social bonds, increase stress and promote stereotypical behavior. If a zoo or aquarium decided to follow TripAdvisors regulations and discontinue breeding, they are facing the potential of reduced welfare for the remainder of the animal’s life.

Reproduction is the single most powerful driving force in all wild animals and is an important factor in behavioral management of zoo and aquarium species. Reproduction is also directly related to health as pregnancy creates a cascade of immune changes that benefits the health of mother and baby. Long-term use of birth control, on the other hand, can create permanent damage to male and female reproductive organs and female animals that aren’t allowed to be pregnant suffer increased risk of infections. For dolphins and whales, experiencing pregnancy, lactation and parental care is a natural process that they actively seek out to fulfill innate needs. The hormones associated with reproduction produce a powerful positive state-of-being for dolphins, and the subsequent strong bonds between a mother and calf are mediated by hormones associated with affection and care.

My research has shown that during the mating process both male and female dolphins experience rises in dopamine (aka the happy hormone) which results in lasting feelings of contentment.15 These studies, along with many more, provide details into the biology of reproduction in ceteceans that would otherwise remain unknown. Because of the knowledge I’ve gained by working with dolphins and whales in human care, I can now apply my expertise to help save the critically endangered Yangtze River finless porpoise and to better understand the long-term negative reproductive effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.

Zoos and Aquariums Matter

Zoos and aquariums provide a service to communities, inspire children and adults to care and provide hands-on conservation education. They also serve as a safety net for the Earth’s wildlife. Researchers and veterinarians at zoos and aquariums are racing to understand the biological complexity of endangered species before it’s too late.

Zoos and aquariums are not the enemy; they are the world’s wildlife heroes.

Shame on TripAdvisor for not talking with the real zoo and aquarium experts, scientists, veterinarians, educators and conservationists.

For more information the links below are from various industry colleagues in response to TripAdvisor’s announcement.


Dolphin Quest


American Humane



  2. Clegg, I. L., Rödel, H. G., Boivin, X., & Delfour, F. (2018). Looking forward to interacting with their caretakers: Dolphins’ anticipatory behaviour indicates motivation to participate in specific events. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 202, 85-93.
  3. Jaakkola, K., & Willis, K. (2019). How long do dolphins live? Survival rates and life expectancies for bottlenose dolphins in zoological facilities vs. wild populations. Marine Mammal Science.
  4. Tenger-Trolander, A., Lu, W., Noyes, M., & Kronforst, M. R. (2019). Contemporary loss of migration in monarch butterflies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201904690.
  6. Lynas, M. (2013). Time to call out the anti-GMO conspiracy theory. Mark Lynas speech hosted by the International Programs–College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (50th Anniversary Celebration), and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell University.
  7. Clancy, K. A., & Clancy, B. (2016). Growing monstrous organisms: the construction of anti-GMO visual rhetoric through digital media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33(3), 279-292.
  8. Marris, C. (2001). Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths: Stakeholders in the GMO debate often describe public opinion as irrational. But do they really understand the public?. EMBO reports, 2(7), 545-548.
  9. Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J., & Van Montagu, M. (2015). Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends in plant science, 20(7), 414-418.
  11. Hill, H. M., Guarino, S., Dietrich, S., & St Leger, J. (2016). An inventory of peer-reviewed articles on killer whales (Orcinus orca) with a comparison to bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Animal Behavior and Cognition, 3(3), 135-149.
  12. Clegg, I. L., Rödel, H. G., Boivin, X., & Delfour, F. (2018). Looking forward to interacting with their caretakers: Dolphins’ anticipatory behaviour indicates motivation to participate in specific events. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 202, 85-93.
  13. Jaakkola, K., & Willis, K. (2019). How long do dolphins live? Survival rates and life expectancies for bottlenose dolphins in zoological facilities vs. wild populations. Marine Mammal Science.
  14. Kuczaj, I. I., & Stan, A. (2010). Research with captive marine mammals is important: An introduction to the special issue. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23(3).
  15. Muraco, H. S. (2015). Reproductive biology of the female bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Dissertation. Mississippi State University.

7 thoughts on “An analysis of TripAdvisor’s new ill-advised dolphin and whale policy

  1. Amazing article and very clear explanation, it could be great to have a video of it. Could we translate to spansih and use It in mexico?

  2. Thank you Holly, great artical.
    It is crazy really when you think of it and how decisions are made at coorperate level. Dangerous!

    Well done and thanks again,

  3. “Dolphins are easy to anthropomorphize, which gives people the tendency to feel emotional empathy towards them.” This is exactly what the captive dolphin industry does to suck people into believing that dolphins want to be pet, kissed, stood on, ridden and hugged by them, such hypocrisy!
    Everything you stand for is all about what’s in it for you!

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