Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass  December 2002

The Case Against Captive Dolphins

Last month, we promised Compass readers "a closer look at the pros and cons" of captive swim-with-dolphins programs. However, although we made a special effort to get the "pro" side of the story (because a mighty media machine is already in effect for the "con" side), none of our requests for "pro" information were answered. In contrast, every one of our "con" requests were answered, and in addition we received much unsolicited information. So, we're presenting what we've got: the case against captive swim-with-dolphins programs.
Tourist attractions where, for a fee, humans can have a "petting zoo"-type physical interaction with dolphins, have proliferated worldwide. As the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society describes it, "the public is indulged by the temptation to fulfill a fantasy at an outrageous cost" - from US$70 per half hour upwards. Interactions usually take place in confined settings with captive animals or, more rarely, with unconfined animals who have been conditioned to come by being fed.

In the Caribbean, there are currently "swim-with-dolphin" programs in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Anguilla and Tortola. Facilities have also recently been established in Antigua and Curaçao, one is under construction in Dominica, and proposals have been made in St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines.
Examination of the ethical issues involved in captive swim-with-dolphin programs is very much an individual concern. But there are a number of other issues which are equally worthy of consideration.

In the absence of viable breeding programs, swim-with-dolphin attractions provide a growing market for captured wild dolphins, but few are ever returned to the wild.
The WDCS reports that Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are usually captured using speedboats and a seine net. As the net closes, the dolphins usually begin to strike the net, increasing the likelihood of entanglement and drowning. The number of animals accidentally killed during capture remains unknown.
Swim-with-dolphin facilities send a message that it's okay to capture animals from the wild for commercial "show biz" ventures. That fact that natural stocks may be depleted by doing so is not part of that message.

Care of Animals
Captured dolphins must immediately cope with confinement, forced association with humans, and lack of the social, visual and auditory stimuli of their natural environment. They must also learn to eat dead fish instead of live ones. Former dolphin captor Jay Sweeney says that force-feeding through a tube is sometimes necessary to keep an animal alive until it learns to accept a diet of dead fish.

Transportation is also stressful. The World Society for the Protection of Animals reports that in September of 2001 the Florida facility Dolphins Plus sent four dolphins to a swim program at the Prospect Reef hotel in Tortola where they were confined in a small lagoon. After about a year there, the dolphins were transferred to a holding pen in Dominica, to await completion of the Dolphin Resorts facility there. The WSPA says that shortly after the animals arrived at Dominica one died, and another is still gravely ill. A dolphin recently transported to Curaçao has also reportedly died.

Naturally, as a tourist attraction, captive dolphins will usually be kept near tourists. The St. Lucia Animal Protection Society writes: "The proposed St. Lucia facility is in an inlet at the entrance to Castries Harbour which is not only extremely polluted, but is directly in the path of low flying aircraft coming in to land at the Vigie airport, and yards away from large cargo and cruise ships entering the harbour. In times of heavy rain, the bay fills up with plastic rubbish from the Castries River. Plastic is extremely dangerous to marine mammals." According to the International Marine Mammal Project newsletter (winter 2001-2002), newly captured bottlenose dolphins were held in a pen adjacent to the sewage outlet of a hotel and condominium complex in La Paz, Mexico. After one animal died within two months, the facility was closed by Mexico's Environmental Enforcement Agency.

According to the WDCS, there are no harmonized standards for the regulation of captive facilities in the Caribbean. Individual country standards may be lax, unenforceable or non-existent. For example, dolphins' water must be changed almost continually, whether by tidal action or pumping - one dolphin can produce up to 20 pounds of excreta per day. Will they (and tourists?) be swimming in their own toilets? Captive dolphins also need a refuge area where they can retreat from clumsy or aggressive swimmers. (Thoughtless swimmers have been known to hit dolphins and even insert swimfins into their genital slits.) If adequate attendance levels are not met, what will happen at underfunded facilities?
Finally, no captive facility in existence can provide adequate exercise for dolphins, who are capable of swimming up to 60 miles a day, can attain speeds up to 22 mph, and can dive to over a thousand feet.

Risk to Swimmers
There is a downside to "swim-withs" for human participants as well. Adult bottlenose dolphins (the type most commonly used) are up to 13 feet long, strong and active, and their "smiling" appearance is due to how their mouths are made, not their emotional state. Much has been made of the instances where dolphins have voluntarily played with swimmers, or saved drowning people. The other side of the coin is dangerous behavior.
Trainer competence is critical, as poorly trained animals can either willfully or accidentally injure swimmers (and vice versa). Contrary to many people's fantasy of swimming freely with a wild creature, the safest swim-with-dolphin interactions are the most rigidly controlled. According to a scientific study* of swim-with-dolphin programs in the US, "high risk activity comprised a substantial portion of dolphin-swimmer activity during Not-Controlled Swims" (i.e. in the absence of explicit trainer regulation). High risk behavior consisted of aggression (including biting, ramming, body-slams and pushing underwater) or sexual behavior (including direct genital contact) with swimmers. Women and children were disproportionately involved in swimmer-at-risk activity.
The behavior of captive cetaceans has been described as ranging from "abnormal" to "psychotic".

A recent article by Charles Sherman in The Miami Herald reports that the US Treasury Office, which enforces the trade embargo on Cuba, is investigating whether Americans have illegally bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of dolphins from the Cuban government, a main supplier of the animals for tourist attractions in the Caribbean. Animal-rights activists say federal investigators have targeted Graham Simpson, who has dual US and British citizenship. Simpson and his wife Pam Pike, also an American, started the Anguilla and Antigua operations, now run by Bermuda-based Dolphin Fantaseas Ltd. (also involved with the proposed facility in St. Lucia) and have allegedly bought Cuban dolphins in violation of the embargo. Simpson was quoted as saying that "as a British citizen living for the last three years in Anguilla it really didn't occur to me that this might be a problem". The IMMP newsletter reports that Simpson has filed for bankruptcy protection in a US court, listing debts to 20 of his largest investors totaling over US$1 million.
The rising tide of popular opposition to captive dolphin facilities is reflected in changes in practice and legislation around the world. In 1977 South Africa limited the number of dolphinaria to two scientific institutes, despite attempts by entrepreneurs to establish additional facilities. In 1985 the state of Victoria, Australia, banned the capture and display of cetaceans. No captures of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins have occurred in the US since 1989. In 1991, Brazil made it illegal to keep marine mammals in captivity. In 1994 Israel banned the import of dolphins for international trade and circus purposes, and the state of Queensland, Australia, banned the capture of dolphins.

According to the information we have received so far, capturing and keeping wild dolphins in socially and sensorily deprived perpetual confinement for commercial exploitation as a sideshow seems to be not only bad animal husbandry but ultimately a tourist turn-off. As an enraged sixth-grade student wrote after a visit to the Vancouver Aquarium in 1995, "They didn't do anything to deserve being caught, taken from their families and put in a tank that takes away their right to freedom."

Information for this article was received from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Earth Island Institute, St. Lucia Animal Protection Society, World Society for the Protection of Animals and the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Network.

* Quantitative Behavioral Study of Bottlenose Dolphins in Swim-With-the-Dolphin programs in the United States, by Amy Samuels (Chicago Zoological Society and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and Trevor Spadlin (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), assisted by Craig Pelton (Florida International University) and Cindy Flaherty (Chicago Zoological Society), 1994.

Editor's note: After completion of this article, a September 18 article by Molly McDaniel the St. Lucia Star newspaper containing some "pro" information was brought to our attention. We'll update you next month.

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