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The Dolphin Debate

Posted by siyerwin on Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 11:10 AM

I found this very balanced report by on the question of using dolphins for "education" and entertainment. It's an old piece (circa 2001) but it's still very timely in the Philippine setting where dolphin shows are popping up like fungi in recent years. The lack of Philippine law against the dolphin entertainment industry does not mean dolphins do not go through inhumane conditions in traveling dolphin shows.

To pet or not to pet?

We homo sapiens are easily flattered. We like dolphins because they seem to like us. They smile--or rather, their mouths curve upward in an illusion of cheeriness--and we feel the urge to touch, to pet, to be nearer. It hardly registers that dolphins smile even when they have nothing to be happy about.

Luna died smiling. The bottle-nosed dolphin was captured last December off the southwest coast of Baja California. For two hours, she traveled in a coffin-like trailer with virtually no water. When she arrived at her destination, an aquarium at La Concha Beach Resort in La Paz, Mexico, she was carried in a makeshift hammock and deposited on a sandy beach. She tried to bite her handlers, but her protest went unheeded. She was forced to frolic and swim with tourists in a pen. After five weeks, she died--from stomach inflammation and ulcers caused by stress, according to the autopsy report. A leading Mexican environmental organization, the Group of One Hundred, is pressing for the release of Luna's seven traveling companions. "These dolphins are overworked and in horrible conditions," says Homero Aridjis, a poet who is the organization's president. "This is dolphin-napping."

Many tourists would be horrified at the thought. A growing number of them are getting a natural high by bonding with these seagoing mammals in aquatic parks both in and outside the U.S. In 18 national programs, visitors can pay up to $150 to hop into the pool for a half-hour "swim-with" the dolphins. These U.S. programs generally treat their featured attractions well: dolphins are no longer captured in the wild, and there are guidelines to limit the mammal's workday (no more than two hours) and office space (a sanctuary away from humans is required).

But such standards are less likely to be followed in parks outside the U.S. In Cuba, the source for many of the dolphins that end up in Caribbean aquariums, a fisherman can earn more than a year's income by selling a wild dolphin on the black market for about $800. Once trained, that same dolphin can fetch $1,500 a day at a Caribbean park. Several cases have been reported of dolphins suffering from stress, chlorine toxicity or an overdose of human affection. "Dolphins don't just drop out of the sky and end up in tanks," says Gwen McKenna, an activist in Ontario, Canada, who seeks to eradicate swim-withs. "They are literally being mauled by humans all day long. These tanks are death traps for them."

At Manati Park in the Dominican Republic, one of the world's most controversial facilities, techno music blares from two large speakers as five dolphins bounce balls and beach themselves on concrete for $7 photo ops. Then the contact sport begins. To the strains of a Celine Dion ballad, a girl douses her hands and feet in disinfectant and grabs hold of dolphin Vicki's pectoral fins. Vicki pulls her passenger along the length of the 10-yd. by 17-yd. pool and returns to the trainer for a reward--two pieces of fish. Vicki then swims up to a group of six swimmers for some petting. The entire session costs $65. "It was a marvelous experience," said Michelle Loeffler, a dance teacher from Peoria, Ill. "But I felt bad they have only that little pool to swim in." Said another tourist: "I don't like the idea of circuses, but this seemed like a nice way to meet the dolphin."

These meet-and-greets present risks to all parties involved. Dr. Santiago Gallo, a gastroenterologist who has treated dolphins in Mexico, reports cases in which dolphins have swallowed keys, a swimming cap and even a disposable diaper. Worse, critics charge that several dolphins have died prematurely at Manati because of toxic waters. Responds Javier Moreno, the owner of Manati: "If there are deaths, this is not a surprise. These are animals. There is a cycle of life. They die. They are born." He plans to expand the facility and add five dolphins to the roster next year.

Humans also can face perils from these encounters. Recent data are hard to come by, since swim programs are not required to report human injuries. But a 1995 study in the U.S. found that dolphins, particularly those in unstructured swim-with programs, occasionally acted aggressively toward humans. The British-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society claims it has witnessed three encounters at Manati that endangered humans.

Some facilities work harder than others to make dolphins feel at home. Dolphins Plus, in Key Largo, Fla., fences off an area of the Florida Bay, thereby connecting the play area to the ocean. One of its owners, Rick Borguss, also holds stock in nearby Dolphin Cove, a natural lagoon surrounded by palm trees where children with disabilities interact with the sea mammals. Orlando's Discovery Cove has three man-made lagoons, seven holding pools, a medical pool for sick animals and a staff of 70-plus workers to tend to the needs of 30 dolphins.

Defenders of these aquariums insist that their goal is to educate, not exploit. "There are billions of people who have no access to animals or [any way to] learn about nature," says Borguss. "People who leave here appreciate the animals." Discovery Cove produces curriculum guides and encourages its specialists to visit local schools. A federal study conducted last year appears to back up the claim that playing with people is no more harmful to the dolphins than performing for them. It found that 12 "interactive" dolphins exhibited no greater stress than their counterparts who simply took part in shows.

That doesn't address a more fundamental question: Should dolphins become human pets? "I can show you a dolphin born inside of a building that has never seen the ocean, live fish or the sky," says Ric O'Barry, a consultant for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. "These are freaks we have created for our own amusement." He advises tourists not to buy tickets for dolphin swims or shows. But that flies in the face of another fact of nature--human nature.

With reporting by Reported by Jeanne DeQuine/Dominican Republic, Dolly Mascarenas/Mexico City and Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles,9171,109583,00.html

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Please do not leave your email or contact numbers in the comments. Email me directly at sherwin @ if you have concerns or questions. This blog is increasingly attracting breeders/pet sellers trying to advertise their business through the comments and I don't want that. The blog seems to also be becoming a bulletin board of sorts for people who wish to abandon their pets. allows no way to edit your comments so there I have no other option but to delete comments that I deem inappropriate in this regard. I apologize for the inconvenience. Again, if you have any questions/concerns, better to email me at sherwin @ than to comment here. Thank you very much!

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