by Laura Bridgeman

For many of us, going to see dolphin shows was a part of growing up. I can recall our family trip to SeaWorld in Orlando – the neon-lit, concrete spectacle which, at the time, amused and delighted my young mind. I was all of 5 years old, and barely able to see over the top of the blue plastic stadium seat in front of me. The clamor of excited voices and the booming loudspeakers, coupled with the noxious scents of popcorn mixed with chlorine, was a sensory overload of the highest order – the perfect environment for contemporary society’s hyperactive child.

The stadium held hundreds of people, and for those of us who had seats in the nosebleed section, the faraway tank looked impossibly small. The anticipation builds with the appearance of the darkened shadow beneath the unnaturally blue water, zipping about at impossible speeds. The yearning from the crowd to see this mysterious, agile form is practically palpable. As the dolphin finally bursts forth from it’s watery medium and launches high into the air, the crowd goes wild.

Dolphins are certainly incredible animals. So incredible in their intellectual, physical and emotional capacities, in fact, that many leading scientists are arguing for their rights as non-human persons. This has important implications for not only dolphins, but the rest of the natural world as well. The work of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, of the Earth Island Institute, advocates for the rights of dolphins not to be subjected to exploitation and abuse at the hands of human beings, and works towards liberating dolphins living in captive conditions today.

This exploitation happens at the behest of the powerful captivity industry. Dolphins are ripped from their homes, families and friends in the wild and forced into a life of perpetual servitude in confined tanks and seapens. Once in these captive facilities, there is no hope for privacy, retirement or even a day of vacation for these performing animals.

When you are faced with the spectacle of a place like SeaWorld, it can be difficult to understand why captivity is bad. The dolphins appear to be smiling as they perform tricks. However, as world-renowned activist Ric O’Barry says, the dolphins’ smile is it’s downfall, leading the public to believe the industry’s claims that they are happy – claims that are self-serving and completely false.

Wild dolphins are used to traveling for many miles each day – confining them in a tank is no different than keeping a person in a jail cell. Dolphins are acoustic animals, meaning that their hearing is their primary sense, as opposed to vision as it is for us. They use sonar to detect minute details of their ocean environments; the concrete walls of a tank provide reverberation that must be maddening.

The captivity industry has an even darker side – the source of their captive dolphins. As depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, hundreds of dolphins at a time are driven into shallow water and brutally slaughtered after a few are selected for captivity. With incentives of more than $150,000 per live dolphin, plus millions more for the facility that purchases and enslaves them, it is not hard to understand why these horrifying activities continue – and why the industry takes every effort to ensure that these realities remain shrouded from the public.

One of the many guises that captive facilities operate beneath is the enticing concept of dolphin shows having educational value. Parents can feel good about bringing their children to something that gets them excited and teaches them something at the same time – an admittedly rare situation. In reality, however, there is zero educational value about these displays. A captive dolphin’s natural behaviors have been repressed, replaced with a set of unnatural and mundane tricks taught to them through a rigorous training program involving food depravation. Captive dolphin shows are nothing more than arrogant, outdated displays of human dominance – a dangerous thing indeed to impress upon young and malleable minds.

Ultimately, the way to stop dolphin exploita-tion is through educating the public and removing the demand for captivity. O’Barry’s Dolphin Project focuses on raising awareness of these issues and spreading the all-important message: Don’t Buy a Ticket to a Dolphin Show. The project has closed many facilities and prevented the opening of others; it has rehabilitated and released captive dolphins, allowing them to be reunited with their ocean lives. But the work is far from over.

I harbor some feelings of guilt from having once supported captivity. But the image that the industry paints is alluring and deceptive; one that is easily subscribed to. Rather than feeling guilty or hopeless, it is important to tell your friends and family about the issues and help to reduce the economic incentives behind the slaughters and slavery that take place. Follow Dolphin Project for more information on other actions you can take.

Top photo courtesy of Leah Lemieux

Dolphin pod by Doug Perrine

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