Mara Silver: Loving dolphins where they belong
Courtesy SW Fisheries Science Center, NMFS, NOAA This is a pod of short-beaked common dolphins.
SHELBURNE — I recently had a conversation with a friend who had taken her children to SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. I realized she did not know why these places are bad for dolphins and whales. People are not aware of the dark side of these parks and their “swim with dolphins” programs.
When your children beg you to take them anywhere dolphins are kept in captivity, places such as SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, Marineland and Six Flags, you have just been presented with a wonderful opportunity to teach them why that is not a good idea.
Dolphins are not fish. They are highly intelligent, social mammals. In the wild, dolphins swim with their pod up to 40 miles a day. They use sonar both to understand their world and to hunt for prey — sonar is as important to dolphins as eyesight is to humans.
Just like people, dolphins crave safety, love and companionship. A baby dolphin will stay with its mother for up to five years, and in some dolphin families, “aunts” have been known to serve as babysitters. In the case of orcas, young remain with their mothers for their entire lives.
In captivity, which can include shallow containments known as sea pens, dolphins are trained to behave unnaturally as amusement for people. They perform for food rewards and eat dead fish instead of their natural, live prey. They are severely restricted in using their highly developed sonar.
Captive dolphins suffer from sensory deprivation, frustration, nutritional deficiencies and boredom, leading to aggression, self-mutilation, stress and depression. They die from intestinal disease, chlorine poisoning, and ulcers; many are put on antacids such as Tagamet. When young are born in captivity, the close bond they form with their mothers is broken far too soon, as they are often confined to separate pens or sold individually to other parks or aquariums.
But the parks do all they can to keep this information from the public.
My friend further told me that SeaWorld employees claimed that their dolphins were rescued and rehabilitated but could not be released back to the wild. She also said that the dolphins looked happy.
Regarding “rescue and rehabilitation,” most of the dolphins at United States facilities were born in captivity and the rest were likely brought there for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the actions of the parks do not demonstrate a commitment to rehabilitation, as they often keep these animals for their profit instead of releasing them. In the case of bottlenose dolphins, (the “Flipper” dolphin), only six individuals have ever deliberately been reintroduced to the wild.
Since captive-born calves are often separated from their mothers early, and because survival skills are passed from adults to calves, offspring will also be doomed to lifetimes in captivity.
Finally, as to the dolphin’s smile, it is nature’s great deception. Unlike humans, dolphins cannot manipulate their faces. A sick, scared dolphin still appears to be smiling because its mouth is shaped that way.
The captive dolphin industry is closely linked to a small Japanese coastal town called Taiji, the world’s largest exporter of dolphins destined for captivity. Every year, Taiji fishermen drive terrorized and exhausted dolphins into a cove. Trainers select the best-looking dolphins, for which they can pay well over $100,000 each.
The rest of the dolphins are slaughtered by a spike into the spine and a plug in the blow hole to prevent bleeding and to cover up the horrible process. Dolphins swim in the blood of their families before being spiked; some drown in nets trying to escape. Importation of wild dolphins into the United States has not been permitted since 1993, yet the captive industry in the United States, for example SeaWorld, refuses take action against the Taiji hunts and help abolish dolphin trafficking.
The captive industry is a huge business; countries that import dolphins from Taiji are mimicking the business model of places like SeaWorld.
What can be done? Children have open minds. Next time your children ask to go to SeaWorld, you can tell them that dolphins in pools or pens are sad and bored, that they need to be able to swim in a great big ocean, and, just like people, be with their families.
Offer alternatives, like watching one of many educational films showing dolphins in natural habitats or take them on a whale-watching trip.
There is nothing more exciting than seeing whales and dolphins out on the open ocean. You are teaching your children to respect wild animals and protect them, which is good for them, good for the dolphins and good for the planet.