Disclaimer: Before you read on, I think it is noteworthy to discuss my position on zoos versus entertainment. I am currently attending a masters program that is affiliated with San Diego Zoo Global, a zoological institution that I stand behind and support the amazing work they do in conservation, education, and exhibit development to create the most life like habitats possible for their animals. There are many other institutions that are working tirelessly to do the same, and I support those efforts. It does not mean I support all zoos (see my previous blog), but I believe there is a line between education and entertainment. I do not believe any species was put on this Earth to entertain me with tricks, shows and forced interactions.
Dolphins are truly remarkable creatures. They are intelligent, family oriented, and always look like they are smiling. What is not to love? Through my youth, teen years and young adulthood, I very much wanted to participate in one of those swim-with-the-dolphins experiences. I dreamed of going to one of those resorts that offered the amazing once in a lifetime experience to touch, interact and swim with these magnificent beings. Not once did I ever stop to wonder where they came from…how did they get there?
Later in life, I felt the pull again. While in Las Vegas, I wanted to see the Siegfried and Roy Secret Garden sanctuary with the retired white tigers, and I didn’t know before arriving but was surprised to learn that this sanctuary also had dolphins. I was in awe of these creatures, watching them swim around, jumping for "joy"; it certainly seemed as though they were having a great time. And maybe they were, how could I possibly know? As we walked through the sanctuary, I noticed there was a swim-with-dolphins encounter. I found myself a bit jealous of the participants, and wishing I could connect with dolphins like that. Again, never stopping to wonder about how they came to be in this position, or how they felt in the blistering desert summer sun that day. Scorching hot temperatures, swimming around with smiling people grasping onto their dorsal fin riding around the pool.
I have always been an animal lover, and I feel a deep connection with dolphins, so it is only natural that I want to have these amazing experiences. It wasn't until I became more of an animal advocate that I began to see what was really going on here: a multi-billion dollar tourist industry built on greed. With more and more swim-with-dolphin encounters emerging in various tourist destinations around the world, I have to ask: where are they getting the dolphins?
A little research showed me that the truth is grim. While many larger and more established organizations rely on captive breeding efforts to maintain their dolphin population, the dolphins being used for tourism and entertainment originated in the wild. Even those emerging now who do not acquire from the wild, are acquiring from other institutions that now captive breed the dolphins, not for release or re-population of depleted areas in the wild, but for captivity, for these shows.
The dolphins I saw at the Mirage in Vegas? In 1990, the Mirage acquired 5 wild caught dolphins from different facilities to begin their display to the public. This is only one of countless similar stories. They were all plucked from their home, from their social group, and from their families in a horrific underwater battle that resulted in "pretty" dolphins being selected for captivity, and others either slaughtered for meat, or pushed back out to sea alone, disoriented, and without their family. Taiji, Japan is one such place where the dolphin hunt still goes on and is responsible for thousands of dolphins slaughtered or sold into captivity each year.
Dolphins are intelligent, and live in complex social structures. They are sentient creatures and family members will remain together for life, strengthening the pod. When they are separated from their family, they, like people, experience anxiety and fear and the trauma from the captive selection process can be permanently damaging. Still entertainment industries continue to open these swim-with-dolphin attractions for one reason: people still buy tickets.
The part that bothers me the most is how they are captured; how we, as a species, continue to believe all other beings are put on this planet for our use, disposal and entertainment. To an activist, it is hard to see this as anything more than further evidence that our species is driven by little other than sheer greed. Why have we as humans determined that it is okay to send a dozen boats out into the ocean every morning during migration season, hoping to find a pod of dolphins to capture? When they are successful, they use terrifying noises and sounds in the ocean to frighten and confuse the dolphins into seeking escape which drives them closer and closer to capture. Once they are captured, they are evaluated: those that are nice-looking and young enough for captivity are taken, those who are not are either slaughtered or pushed back out to sea...this is a crime against nature, and it sickens me to the core. While I may not be able to stop the slaughter and capture, I can definitely pledge to never buy a ticket to swim with dolphins.
Perhaps one day, if I am lucky enough, I will swim with dolphins...in their home, on their terms, where they belong.
(Bottom 2 photos are courtesy of the Dolphin Project and the Cove Movie)
If you are interested in learning more, please check out The Dolphin Project website, www.dolphinproject.net, or watch the stunning documentary The Cove, www.thecovemovie.com.
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