Friday, March 19, 2010

People love marine parks, marine mammals don't

I'm sure many of you heard about the Killer Orca whale in FLA who drowned his female trainer of 15 years. This letter to the editor is written in response to that event except focussing more on dolphins. It first appeared a few weeks ago in a local Nantucket newspaper. Your comments are welcomed.

People love marine parks, marine mammals don’t

To the Editor: As we discuss the reasons behind a pod of Atlantic common dolphins venturing into Nantucket Harbor last week, we begin to understand how little we humans know about the behaviors of these highly-intelli gent wild ocean mammals. In this light, the SeaWorld incident, Tilikum the orca killing his trainer – also last week – takes on more significance. There have been numerous “points” bantered about in the media, some of them legitimate, others com pletely fictional opinion. I believe it is always important to ques tion the “conventional” wisdom when this wisdom is based on corporate profit incentive. When life is at stake it is vital. In this case it was the life of the trainer and the live(s) of the orca kept in captivity.

To begin a considered exami nation, one must look at how much dolphins are worth to the fishermen who catch them. One “live” dolphin is worth $50,000 to $150,000-plus to the fisher men. As the dolphinarium industry is always looking to obtain more dolphins for dolphin shows, captive-dolphin swim programs and dolphin-assisted therapy, a few young, unblem ished specimens suitable for commercial exploitation bring huge profits. This profit incen tive keeps dolphin-drive hunts in the black. In Japan alone, up to 23,000 dolphins a year are killed in drive hunts. The small percentage of these sent around the world to dolphinariums pro vide the payoff.

To see the commercial value of captive dolphins again, follow the money. In a swim with dolphins program monitored in 2001, six people entered the tank with two dolphins every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. Twenty-four people an hour, for 11 hours at $65 per person, equals $17,160 per day. Add pho tos at $7 each and the estimated value to the dolphinarium was over $19,000 per day. The dolphins were required to perform shows to loud techno music du ing those brief interludes when not swimming with clients.

There are no cold, hard facts relating to dolphin life spans in captivity vs. in the wild, except that, on average, captive dol phins do not live longer than wild dolphins, in spite of con stant food and medical atten tion. Scientists do know that bottlenose dolphins in the wild can live up to 45-50 years. Many wild-caught dolphins die within the first two years of captivity. Orcas can live to be 90. Accord ing to NOAA – which keeps an inventory of most killer whales and bottlenose dolphins held in captivity around the world – SeaWorld alone has held 62 orcas in captivity. Twenty-nine have died: all in under 50 per cent of their expected lifetime in the wild, according to available data, (date of birth is extrapolat ed on most of the 29). Speaking of only the physical mortality issues, they succumbed to: severe trauma (bashing them selves against the side of the tank), intestinal gangrene, acute hemorrhagic pneumonia, pul monary abscession, chronic kid ney disease, chronic cardiovascu lar failure, septicemia, influenza and necrosis of cerebrum. And suicide: “A lot of misguided talk surrounds another similarity between human beings and dol phins in captivity: their commit ting suicide when stressed. When dolphins in captivity are greatly stressed, they sometimes obviously feel the need to escape by whatever means . . . Some of these dolphins batter them selves to death against the walls of their prison. Others refuse to eat until they waste away and die. While humans and all the other mammals breathe auto matically, dolphins don’t have that automatic reflex; every breath they take is deliberate . . . The dolphin will kill himself by drowning if he deliberately breathes water, but, more likely, he dies for lack of oxygen in his blood caused by not breathing at all. This suicide option the dol phin takes is another proof of his self-awareness, without which suicide would never even occur to him.” –Ric O’Barry, protago nist in the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Cove.”

The number-one reason given by the dolphin captivity industry for keeping dolphins is to educate people about these “wonderful creatures.” Yet, go to any “show” and find out what is really being taught. They fail to mention the distances traveled by these animals, the depths they dive to, or the life span they could expect in the wild. A dol­phin’s basic physiology is not taught. Their real living, breed ing and bonding habits are not discussed. How they were cap tured and the mortality rates of their companions is certainly not mentioned. What dolphinariums do speak about is how happy, smart and healthy their captive dolphins are. Announcing how well their dolphins do their tricks for – “positive reward” – rather than noting it is actually food depravation as the dolphins see it. Fail to perform, go hungry. The number-one answer given by children about what they learned – in a non-scientific study – dolphins “make big splashes . . .”

The Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 24, 2010 quotes Joyce Tischler, founder of and general counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund: “She compares an orca’s life in captivity in a tank to keeping a human being in a bathtub for his entire life.”

To quote Jacques Cousteau: “There is about as much educa tional benefit to be gained in studying dolphins . . . in captivi ty as there would be studying mankind by only observing pris oners held in solitary confine ment.”

Dolphinariums persist in stating that it is impossible to return animals like Tilikum to the wild because they are inca­pable of surviving the transition. David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project for the Earth Island Institute, notes, “The vast major ity of the orca whales in captivi ty would be far better off to be returned to the wild. Orcas are unbelievably ill-suited to life in theme parks and can be success fully returned to the wild. We know, because we have done it.”

The latest defense from the U.S. captivity industry stems from – imposed – federal law which does not allow United States facilities to exploit wild caught cetaceans (dolphins and whales). The industry boasts 65 percent of cetaceans in captivity in America were born in captivi ty. That leaves approximately 35 percent a residual population of wild-caught animals. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 at approxi mately 2 years of age). This 35 percent will eventually die out. Does this infer a population 100 percent born in a tank, living in a tank, performing in a tank, then dying in a tank is somehow better?

From my perspective, dolphi nariums teach humans that it is OK to confine free-roaming, sen tient, social wild animals; that they enjoy confinement, being handled, being trained to behave in predictable ways at human bidding, all in return for dead fish. I have absolutely no doubt that most trainers have relation ships with the animals they spend so much time along side. To some large degree, in loving relationships. There is some thing human about it. But, lock me in a trailer, even an air-con ditioned one, and I too will even tually bite the hand that feeds me.

People love dolphinariums and marine parks. Dolphins don’t.

SCOTT LEONARD is a citizen scientist and member of the Marine Mammal Conservation Program and the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket Island, MA. He is an advocate for the equality and quality of life for those who cannot speak in human languages. For a living he fixes, builds and creates things.

The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket MA
(508) 228-0001, ext. 14 (w)
(508) 221-0379 (c)

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