(DOLPHINS) Last month, after an eight-year-old was accidentally bitten by a dolphin at the Dolphin Cove exhibit at SeaWorld Orlando, the girl expressed how dolphins still remain her favorite animal and how she was actually more concerned about the dolphin’s health and safety after swallowing a small paper plate she had been holding. However, Sujatha Ramakrishna, author of Raising Kids Who Love Animals, explains how captive dolphins undergo far more serious physical and emotional distress, while urging parents to consider the lifetime of suffering these animals endure for a few minutes of family entertainment. Excerpts used with author’s permission. — Global Animal
By Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.
Last month, an eight-year-old girl at Sea World in Orlando, FL was accidentally bitten by a dolphin at an exhibit which allows members of the public to feed the animals. It happened because she ran out of fish and the dolphin decided to grab her empty plate, catching her hand along with it.
During televised interviews after the incident, the girl had visible teeth marks on her hand, but she said that dolphins were still her favorite animals, and that she hoped to become a dolphin trainer someday. She also expressed concern for the health and safety of the dolphin who bit her, because he might have swallowed the paper plate that she had been holding.
What that little girl didn’t seem to realize is that swallowing a paper plate is the least of a captive dolphin’s problems.
Ric O’Barry, the cetacean expert who trained the dolphin featured on the television show Flipper, has now become a vocal opponent of keeping dolphins in confinement. He notes that echolocation is the primary sense of these animals, and he believes that surrounding them with solid walls amounts to sensory deprivation and is a form of animal cruelty.
Other experts have found that marine mammals who live in captivity are much less likely to produce healthy offspring than those who live out in the open ocean. Confined dolphins also exhibit severe behavioral problems, such as swimming in stereotypical patterns with their eyes closed when they are bored, and attacking each other or their human trainers when they become agitated. These abnormal behaviors are signs that the animals are experiencing physical and emotional distress.
In their natural state, dolphins live in large pods which have complex social structures. They make friends, and enemies, and learn from each other. Scientists even believe that they have culture, in the sense that certain feeding and play behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next. Wild dolphins have every ocean in the world as their natural habitat. They communicate with each other over distances of many miles, and can swim as far as they please in search of food, mates, or simply an interesting way to spend their afternoon. It’s no wonder that they develop health and behavioral problems when they are forced to swim in the same small circles day after day, and have only a few other animals to keep them company.
Owners of marine mammal theme parks which allow the public to feed and interact with dolphins capitalize on the fact that people have an amazingly strong attraction to these creatures. It’s highly tempting for families with kids who love animals to visit these facilities so they can take a closer look at cetaceans, or to schedule family vacations in Mexico so their children can swim with dolphins. But before they do either of these things, parents should consider the lifetime of suffering that these animals must endure in order to provide a few minutes of entertainment for their family. They also might want to think about how participating in such activities affects the development of compassion in their children.
Kids who love animals obviously love to see dolphins in person. Petting a dolphin or getting a kiss from one in a swimming pool is a unique experience for a child, and it offers impressive photo opportunities for parents. However, watching a dolphin leap into the air on command, or having one pull you along for a ride through the water, involves treating a wild animal as an object for your own amusement, rather than respecting her as an individual with her own wants and needs. Objectifying living beings in such a manner has a detrimental effect on the development of empathy in young children, because it does not teach them to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Wild dolphins are often curious about humans, but most of the time they would rather be left alone, and they would definitely not choose to be kept in confinement and forced to perform tricks for rewards of dead fish.
Making a trip to visit these animals in their natural environment, and interacting with them on their terms, is a much more empathic choice for families to make. Of course, there are no guarantees that whales or dolphins will be sighted on any given tour with a whale-watching company, and some people find this to be disappointing. However, being surrounded by a pod of cavorting dolphins out in the open ocean is an experience which blows any trip to a marine mammal theme park right out of the water, both literally and figuratively. It also teaches children a lot more about the true nature of marine mammals, since they get to see them living in their native habitat and displaying natural behaviors.
Patronizing a facility where dolphins are kept captive in tanks obviously increases the chances that your kids will get to see one up close, but it also sends them the implicit message that convenience, entertainment, and immediate gratification are higher on your priority list than acting with compassion. On the other hand, spending a day searching for dolphins and whales out on the open sea teaches children to have patience, persistence, and consideration for other living beings.
Hopefully, the little girl who was bitten by her favorite animal will grow up to realize that showing love for dolphins means allowing them to live in the ocean where they belong, not keeping them in tanks, and decide to become the captain of a whale-watching boat instead of a dolphin trainer.