A dolphinarium is a facility which is designed specifically for the containment of dolphins. Dolphinariums are by nature large, to accommodate the needs of the dolphins they contain, and they may have a number of features where are designed to create a more natural environment for the dolphins. Because of the high intelligence and sensitivity of dolphins, dolphinariums have been heavily criticized by representatives of the animal rights movement and some concerned biologists.
Dolphins are kept in captivity for a variety of reasons. For example, some rescue and conservation organizations use their dolphinariums to rehabilitate injured animals, with the goal of returning them to the wild. Dolphins are also trained to perform tasks for the military and other organizations, in which case they may be kept in a dolphinarium while they are not working. However, the vast majority of such facilities are designed solely for human entertainment.
Because dolphins are extremely intelligent, they can be trained to perform a wide variety of tricks and tasks. Many facilities which display dolphins for visitors also hold dolphin shows, allowing guests to watch dolphins as they jump through hoops, chase various objects, and perform an assortment of tricks. A show at a dolphinarium may be justified as “enrichment” for the captive animals, which it certainly is, although one could argue that enrichment would not be necessary if the dolphins were allowed to go free.
Criticisms of dolphinariums focus primarily on the debate over whether or not dolphins, or indeed animals in general, should be kept captive and exploited for human entertainment. Arguments against confinement in a dolphinarium usually point out that confined dolphins often demonstrate a variety of psychologically distressed behaviors, suggesting that they find the environment confining and stressful. A dolphinarium seriously restricts a dolphin's natural tendencies, as the animals prefer to frolic in large ranges in the water, and they also use their echolocation abilities to communicate as well as to navigate; the concrete walls of a dolphinarium can distort echolocation signals, causing confusion and distress.
Dolphinariums are also used to house “swim with the dolphins” programs in many areas, and these programs have been subjected to a great deal of criticism. Advocates of such programs argue that they are educational and enjoyable, and that dolphins can even be used in therapy for people with physical and mental disabilities. Critics, however, feel that such programs are dangerous for the dolphins, as they promote unnatural behavior and expose the dolphins to the risk of disease. Such programs can also be dangerous for people; dolphins are very strong, and they can be rough with people, both intentionally and unintentionally.