Are Aquariums Cruel to Animals? (7 Reasons to Avoid Them in 2022)

by Becky

April 1, 2021

Since documentaries like Blackfish were released, the conversation about the cruelty behind keeping marine mammals in aquariums became mainstream. These are intelligent, sentient, active beings that are stuck in tanks for our entertainment. The question is – how much damage have aquariums already done to the animals?

Aquariums are cruel to marine mammals. Animals like dolphins and orcas in particular are highly intelligent with complex social systems that suffer from severe stress-related disorders when kept in captivity. Not only do these animals get taken away from their families, but they are forced to interact with humans in tiny living spaces.

Most people have thought about or have visited an aquarium with captive marine mammals. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of coming face to face with these majestic creatures without realizing how cruel it can be.

Before deciding to visit an aquarium, read on to learn why you should avoid ones with dolphins and orcas in particular.

Why Are Aquariums Cruel to Animals?

Orca show in aquarium

Humans are always looking for ways to entertain themselves, even at the expense of other creatures. Marine mammal captivity is cruel to animals for a variety of different reasons.

Marine Animals Are Taken Away from Their Families

First, many of these creatures were once living in the wild with their families. They need to be ambushed and forced into captivity by humans. To do this with killer whales, people have had to steal babies from their mothers.

Dolphins and whales have a strong sense of family and spend their lives together, bonded with each other in the ocean. Whales even work together to hunt their food. Studies have found that these marine animals have emotional connections to their family and become distraught when they lose a member of the group.

When humans capture these animals, they take the ones they want while putting back the undesirables. This practice rips moms from their young and siblings from one another. Animals that are born in captivity are also subjected to a life without family. Newborns are taken and sold to aquariums around the world, never to be reunited.

Whether animals are taken captive in the wild or born in captivity, they often live separated from their family where they live a life of stress and grief while constantly searching for their loved ones.

They Have Poor Diets Consisting of Unnatural Nutrients

Diets provided to captive marine animals are mainly frozen fish supplemented by other unnatural nutrients. Frozen fish do not offer marine animals the same quality as the live fish they would naturally eat in the sea. Free animals do not require any of the supplements that are given to their captive counterparts.

Food is almost always paired with training exercises. Take dolphins for example, they aren’t bred to eat dead fish but aquariums often deprive them of food, so that they are eager to be rewarded with scraps when they perform tricks. If they refuse, they are trained to adapt because that is the only food they will get.

Keeping animals in captivity removes their ability to hunt and forage for food in the wild. Instead of focusing their energy on finding food, they may become frustrated and show aggressive behavior.

This may sound extreme but dolphins and whales that cannot forage for food can suffer such severe stress-related conditions such as ulcers and even self-mutilation.

Poor Living Conditions Cause Them to Attack Each Other

For the most part, any wild animal in captivity will be subjected to poor living conditions because they are unnatural compared to their wild counterparts.

Big marine mammals like orcas are able to swim up to 100 miles a day and dive a depth of 850ft. And as it stands, there is no aquarium tank that is longer than 220ft or deeper than 50ft.

Bottom line – tanks that keep captive animals are too small and cramped. Removing animals from the wide-open ocean and putting them in a pool is comparable to expecting a human to navigate the size of a bathtub in space.

When animals are forced to stay in small and unnatural conditions, they become agitated and can easily begin to attack one another. Captive animals at the bottom of the totem pole are forced to live in conditions that are not safe.

Marine animals are also known to chew on the sides of the tanks. Doing so puts significant stress on them and their teeth. It often results in them having unhealthy mouths and needing painful remediation to correct the damage.

Due to the poor living conditions, animals live shorter lives in captivity. Orcas, that are highly emotionally intelligent animals, have shown the most serious mortality rates. In captivity these whales live an average of 15 to 20 years. Whereas in in the wild, they can have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years.

Aquarium Chemicals Can Be Harmful to Their Skin

Large aquariums with captive animals need to have their tanks cleaned out regularly. To do this, many organizations use unnatural chemicals that could cause harm to the animals living inside. Large fish and marine mammals are too big to be removed from their tanks, so the cleaning happens while they are still swimming inside.

Chemically treated tanks are harmful to animals simply because the chemicals are unnatural for them. They would never be exposed to those chemicals in their natural habitat. Chlorine and other chemicals used for cleaning might disrupt the animals' vision or irritate their skin.

Stressful Human Interactions Can be Traumatizing

Organizations, such as SeaWorld, use animals in captivity for human entertainment. These animals are forced to perform tricks for food and work with human trainers.

Performing in a cramped space every day can be traumatizing for marine mammals. As a result, there have been countless documented attacks on humans by frustrated captive mammals.

Animals and trainers are expected to work together and provide entertainment to ticket holders. This can present a problem as trainers are chosen based on their ability to entertain rather than train the animal.

But no matter how much time a trainer spends with their animal, the animal can still be unpredictable because of the psychological trauma it has endured.

There have been several documented cases of an animal becoming agitated and turning on its trainer, sometimes leading to the trainer's death. One orca in particular, named Tilikum, is responsible for killing three of his trainers between 1983 – 2016.

What’s important to note here is that there hasn’t been one recorded death of a person by an orca in the wild.

Along with entertainment shows, other marine animals like stingrays are stripped of their defense mechanisms to provide "touch tanks" for humans to put their hands on them. Being deprived of freedom and the ability to defend themselves or avoid humans can cause stress in marine animals.

Having a High Intelligence Means They Feel Trauma More

Humans find marine mammals such as dolphins and orca whales so fascinating because of their intelligence. When people look at them – they are amused at the fact that these intelligent creatures can understand human commands and even learn tricks that are entertaining.

But they are capable of so much more than entertaining humans – they lead complex and long lives and are highly sentient. All of this is just one more reason why keeping them in captivity is cruel and inhumane.

Intelligent creatures like this need to live freely in their natural environments and not locked up in small pools. Here are some facts about dolphins and whales that will blow your mind:

  • Studies have shown they communicate using their own language.
  • They can feel different emotions similar to humans.
  • They are self-aware and can recognize themselves and their family members.

Subjecting them to stressful situations such as being captured and held in captivity for their entire lives can cause severe trauma to animals with such high intelligence.

Regulations on Aquariums Are Poorly Managed

Another factor that contributes to the cruelty of captive animals is that aquariums are poorly regulated. Organizations that have these animals are supposed to get frequent inspections from the US government. When it has been determined that there has been a violation, there are rarely any consequences.

When there is an animal attack on a human, organizations tend to deflect blame and not take any responsibility. Even when there have been deaths and serious injuries inside aquariums, there is still a lack of consequences given to organizations that hold animals’ captive.

Are Aquariums Bad for the Environment?

Aquarium tank with fish

Keeping animals in captivity is not only harming the animal, but it can also cause harm to the environment. Companies are thinking more about deepening their pockets rather than keeping a sustainable environment for our marine life.

Use of Cyanide to Capture Fish Can Cause Reproduction Problems

When fish are being captured in the wild, humans spray cyanide inside the coral reef to stun the fish. Once the fish are stunned, they can scoop them up and import them around the world to be sold in pet stores.

Fish that are exposed to cyanide are affected in several different ways. First, cyanide can affect the fish's ability to reproduce. It can completely inhibit their ability to produce or cause defects in their eggs.

Furthermore, it can decrease their performance within the water. They might swim slower and inhibit their ability to escape a predator. A combination of the two can affect the population of certain fish.

Overall, cyanide is killing fish that are exposed to it and artificially causing lower populations.

Capturing Marine Animals Disrupts the Habitat

Capturing marine animals to keep them captive in an aquarium does not only do harm to the animal. It can also disrupt the habitat that was formerly their home. While we try to make our home look better with our aquariums, we are ruining theirs!

Other than affecting exposed fish, cyanide kills coral reefs. By killing the coral reef, humans are taking away homes for a lot of ocean creatures. A lot of fish rely on coral reefs to keep them safe from predators.

Not only do fish get captured, but sometimes other rocks and parts of the habitat are taken with them. This can cause lots of distress to the environment and leave many different species homeless and vulnerable to predators.

To keep the environment balanced, marine animals have learned to use their surroundings to adapt and avoid being eaten.

Is It Cruel to Have a Home Aquarium & Things to Consider?

Like many other people around the world, you may be considering buying an aquarium or fish tank for your home. Sure, they do have the potential to look good and might even teach young kids a valuable lesson on responsibility.

But there are some things you need to consider before deciding on purchasing an aquarium for your home.

Keep it as Natural as Possible

When purchasing a fish tank for your home, here’s what to remember:

  • Buy a tank that is as close to the fish's natural environment as possible.
  • Avoid fish tanks with bright colors around the outside or other unnatural features.
  • Choose a fish tank that has curved edges – no sharp corners. This will give the fish tank a more natural feel for your fish.
  • To keep your fish tank looking even more natural, line the bottom of your tank with a neutral and natural-looking substrate.
  • Avoid lining your tank with unnatural pellets or rocks. Even though this may look nice, your goal is to give the tank a natural feel.
  • Make sure that when introducing your fish into the tank, you take the proper steps to allow your fish to get acclimated to the tank.
  • Your fish tank will need to go through a natural nitrogen cycle that enables the water to naturalize to the fish environment.

Buy One That Is the Right Size

Not only do you want to make the environment of the tank as natural as possible, but you will also want to make sure the tank is the right size for the fish. Nothing is freer than the open ocean, so if you should try to buy a big enough fish tank that gives fish enough space to roam.

Like with sea mammals living in captivity, fish need space, or else they will live a life full of stress and anxiety.

Keep Up with Maintenance

This might be the most critical part of keeping a fish tank in your home. There are many examples of people leaving their fish tank unmaintained and ending up creating an unsafe environment for the fish.

  • To keep your fish tank properly maintained and clean, install a proper filtration system to avoid algae buildup and your water turning brown.
  • When cleaning out the tank, always acclimate the fish to the new water to avoid the fish becoming stressed in their new clean environment.

It is not recommended to purchase a tank and fish if you are not willing to keep up with the cleaning and maintenance. People who travel a lot or are out of their homes for long periods often neglect their home aquarium without thinking of the damage they are causing to their aquatic animals.

What Are Alternatives to Aquariums?

Whale watching in the ocean

Now that we are aware of the cruelty of keeping animals in captivity, we can think about alternatives to aquariums. We can still learn a lot from marine animals while keeping them safe in their natural environment.

Animal Sanctuaries Provide a Natural Alternative

An animal sanctuary provides humans with the ability to see and learn from animals in their natural environment. There are eleven marine sanctuaries around the coast of the United States, spreading from the upper east coast all the way around to the upper west coast.

Sanctuaries work to protect the environment, including the animals that live in them. Visiting a sanctuary will give you a chance to see marine animals prosper within their natural habitat while keeping yourself and the animals safe.

Supporters of aquariums often bring up that they are educational and provide learning opportunities to the youth. While education does occur at these establishments, The National Marine Sanctuary System is working to create alternative options.

The National Marine Sanctuary System partners with schools and educators to provide meaningful educational opportunities for students.

Their vision is to provide "An ocean-literate public making informed environmental decisions." Providing students with these learning opportunities can create responsible citizens of the world.

Freeing Captive Animals Can Reduce Stress Levels

After being in captivity for long periods, just freeing these animals into the wild would be just as irresponsible as keeping them captive. Unlike their counterparts in the wild, these animals become accustomed to the unfair treatment they endured while in captivity. There is a very slim chance that they would be able to survive in the wild.

That does not mean they cannot be freed. An alternative environment can be created within the ocean for formally captive animals. It would provide them with similar freedoms that they would receive in their natural habitat while still being safe enough to survive.

Furthermore, an artificial environment in the ocean would give them much more space to roam freely and prevent them from interacting with humans.

Overall, lowering their stress levels and allowing them to live the rest of their life much happier.


Keeping marine animals in captivity, including aquariums, is cruel and inhumane. Humans subject this wildlife to stressful and unsafe environments for entertainment.

Although places like SeaWorld has taken steps forward, including the fact that they no longer breed or capture orcas at all, these animals still need our support if we want to stop all captive marine life being used for human entertainment.

Even airlines, such as Southwest airlines and British airways, have ended their long standing relationships with SeaWorld to stop promoting the aquarium.

There is no need to keep any wild animals in captivity like this - there are alternatives, like sanctuaries, that provide educational opportunities while still keeping animals stress-free and living happily within their natural environment.

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