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The Dolphin Dilemma

Animal welfare activists have been pushing to ban amusement parks from exploiting orcas, and they say dolphins deserve the same protections.



Ric O'Barry used to capture dolphins and train them for the TV show Flipper, but on one disturbing day in 1970 he renounced his work and launched a campaign against keeping dolphins in captivity. The show had finished filming in Florida when he got a call that something was wrong with Kathy, one of the dolphins who played Flipper. Depressed and listless, Kathy had stopped eating and was being fed through a tube. She was alone in one of the tanks at the Miami SeaQuarium. When O'Barry arrived at the tank, Kathy's back was covered in blisters due to overexposure to the sun.

O'Barry had just climbed into the tank when Kathy swam up to him, and, in his words, committed suicide. "I use that word — suicide — with some reservation," he told me. "But that's the only thing I know to call it. It was self-induced asphyxiation."

Since then, O'Barry has been lobbying to free dolphins with the Berkeley-based Earth Island Institute as part of his Dolphin Project organization.

With the release in recent years of the documentary films Blackfish and The Cove — the latter of which featured O'Barry — controversy has been growing around the issue of whether cetaceans, the group of sea mammals that includes dolphins, porpoises, and whales, including orcas, should be kept in parks for human entertainment.

In the Bay Area, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo has 21 bottlenose dolphins and, until 2012, had an orca that performed in shows. The dolphins and the orca, named Shouka, lived side by side for years until the park gave the whale to SeaWorld in San Diego because it had become aggressive with the dolphins and needed to be with other orcas, according to Cassandra Rutan, a park trainer. Federal law also states that both orcas and dolphins should have companions of their own species, since they are highly social animals. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture, which regulates sea mammal show parks, cited Six Flags in 2005 and 2008 for keeping an orca alone, according to public documents collected by the animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

In March, state Assemblymember Richard Bloom, a Democrat from Santa Monica, introduced legislation that sought to ban California amusement parks from keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment. The legislature, however, tabled Assembly Bill 2140 earlier this month after intense lobbying from SeaWorld in San Diego — the only show park that would have been directly impacted by the ban. SeaWorld officials and other proponents of allowing amusement parks to keep and display killer whales and other cetaceans contend that the animals are well cared-for and happy in captivity, and that it benefits humans, especially children, to be able to see marine mammals up close.

But animal welfare activists contend that orcas and other cetaceans belong in the ocean — not confined to concrete tanks and exploited for profit. Activists are also committed to pushing forward with the ban on keeping orcas in captivity — despite the recent setback in Sacramento. Bloom's bill is expected to return to the legislature for consideration next year.

Supporters of the legislation also hope to eventually ban dolphin shows, too. "Orcas are dolphins," O'Barry said. "They're the largest dolphin."

O'Barry was one of the first people to ever train a dolphin and was the first orca trainer in the Eastern United States. In the 1960s, he captured bottlenose dolphins in the wild and then brought them back to the Miami SeaQuarium, where he trained them, including the five who played the role of Flipper.

Then the "suicide" happened. "It was Kathy, yes, but not the Kathy I had known," O'Barry wrote in his book, Behind the Dolphin Smile. "... I leaped in the water with her, clothes and all. She came over and into my arms, I held her for a moment and felt the life go out of her. Her tail flukes stopped, and she was dead."

Unlike humans, dolphins must make a conscious effort to breathe. And sometimes they decide to stop breathing, when life simply becomes too miserable. O'Barry said he's seen other dolphins commit suicide during some of the dolphin hunts in Japan, where he has helped lead protests.

This past January, images of the capture and slaughter of bottlenose dolphins in Taiji, Japan went viral on social media, drawing criticism. The annual event, which was the subject of The Cove, involves the luring of about five hundred dolphins into a small inlet. Some dolphins are captured for sale, including to amusement parks, but fishermen kill many of the mammals for food. Each year the event turns the cove red with blood and draws crowds of activists and news crews.

While many people express shock and disgust upon seeing the butchery of one of the world's most beloved sea creatures, the Japanese often defend the practice as a local custom that is no different from slaughtering other animals for meat. "We have fishermen in our community and they are exercising their fishing rights," Taiji Mayor Kazutaka Sangen told CNN.

All cetaceans, including dolphins, are what scientists call roaming animals, which means that they travel vast distances in the wild. Orcas swim up to 100 miles per day in the ocean. Dolphins swim about 50 miles a day, and the smallest "home range," the area they call home, is about 10 square miles for a dolphin, said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist who studies orcas in the wild and whose organization, the Animal Welfare Institute, co-sponsored the proposed legislation that sought to ban orca shows in the state.

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