In a world-first, scientists are attempting to measure the “happiness” of dolphins by monitoring the behaviour of the animals at a marine park near Paris. The project aims to assess life in captivity from the perspective of animals by examining what dolphins look forward to doing the most.

Researchers found dolphins are most happy when interacting with a human they have had a bond with. They say, “better human-animal bonds equals better welfare”. The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, was part of a three-year project to measure dolphin welfare in a captive setting.

Lead researcher Dr Isabella Clegg designed the experiment and examined the dolphins’ posture to determine how the animals were feeling.  She tested dolphins during sessions with a trainer, when they had toys in the pool and when they were left to their own devices.

“We found a really interesting result – all dolphins look forward most to interacting with a familiar human,” Dr Clegg says.

The animals showed this anticipation by “spy hopping”, the action of peering above the surface and looking in the direction that trainers usually approached from.

The question of whether it is right or wrong to hold these animals in captivity has long been a point of contention, particularly in France. The French government recently overturned a proposed ban on the captive breeding of dolphins in marine parks such as Parc Astérix.

The lifting of that ban was a huge relief for Birgitta Mercera, who runs the dolphinarium. She told that allowing the dolphins to breed, to raise their own offspring, was a critical part of what she suggested was a happy – though very different – life from that in the wild.

“I think that wild dolphins are happier in the wild, and captive-born dolphins are much happier in captivity.

“They’re born here – it is their life. And it’s our priority to look after them.”

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