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.
"Even the largest dolphin tank is less than 1/10,000th of a percent in size" of a ten-square-mile home range, Rose said.
But supporters of marine mammal show parks, including employees and patrons of Six Flags, contend that most dolphins do just fine in captivity. Amanda Meyer, a trainer intern at Six Flags, said the tank in the stadium where dolphin shows are currently being held is 25 feet deep, and wide enough for the four or five dolphins to swim in. "When you dive down there ... you look up and you say, 'Oh — this is huge.' Yeah, it's a fishbowl kind of concept," she said.
But O'Barry, Rose, and other animal welfare activists contend that no matter how nice the tanks are, cetaceans belong in the wild. "They're free-ranging, large-brained, self-aware, sonic creatures," O'Barry said of orcas and dolphins, adding that keeping them in captivity is "a failed experiment."
"It's like you being under house arrest," Rose added, referring to forcing dolphins to live in a tank for most of their lives. "Your house can be 30,000 square feet ... it can be a nice house, but you're still under house arrest. In fact, that's what we do as punishment."
AB 2140, introduced on March 7 by Assemblymember Bloom, was sparked in part by Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that centers on the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum in the Orlando, Florida park. The documentary alleges that Tilikum became deranged after being confined to a pool as small as a whale-sized "bathtub."
AB 2140 sought to retire all captive orcas and transfer them into "sea pens" — fenced off coves with ocean water and natural plants. The retired orcas would be on display, but would not be required to perform the way they are today. The amount of interaction between trainers and orcas would also be limited, according to Bloom's fact sheet on the bill.
"It is time that we embrace that the long-accepted practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement must end," Bloom said at a press conference, where he was joined by Gabriella Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, two former SeaWorld trainers, and an animal welfare activist.
SeaWorld officials have called the documentary biased and contend that it was the product of animal rights activists. They made some of the same arguments about AB 2140. "The premise behind the legislation is severely flawed on multiple levels, and its validity is highly questionable under the United States and California Constitutions," SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides said in statement before the legislature tabled the bill.
SeaWorld representatives also asserted that the amusement park doesn't separate orca moms and calves as Blackfish implies, that the park spends millions of dollars to care for its orcas, and that SeaWorld is a leader in animal rescue. "SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild," and hasn't for 35 years, stated an open letter produced by park officials.
"We object to Blackfish because its two central premises are wrong: (1) that life at SeaWorld is harmful for killer whales and for trainers working with these animals, and (2) that SeaWorld has attempted to cover up the facts surrounding the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010," the letter continued.
Park management also asserted in the letter that orcas at SeaWorld live as long as those in the wild — even though scientists who argue for orca freedom, including Rose, say this claim is completely false.
SeaWorld's website also features a series of short videos from employees who say the documentary and its message are biased and false. Many of the videos feature trainers at poolside, with a giant orcas sprawled out in the background. "There's nothing in the world that compares to having a rapport and a relationship with an animal like this," SeaWorld Orlando's Head Animal Trainer Kelly Flaherty-Clark says in one of the videos.
After Bloom introduced AB 2140, SeaWorld hired the influential energy lobbyist Pete Montgomery, according to a report by the newspaper U-T San Diego. About a month later, on April 8, the Assembly's Water Parks and Wildlife Committee decided to put AB 2140 on hold, pending further study. Animal welfare activists say they plan to keep pushing for the ban nonetheless.
"SeaWorld is effectively spinning what happened [April 8] as a victory for them, but I assure you, they wanted a 'no' vote," Rose wrote in an email, referring to the fact that the legislature stopped short of defeating the bill. "The interim study means a new bill will be introduced and in the meantime the discussion about what's happening with these animals in captivity is still ongoing, which is definitely not in SeaWorld's favor."
SeaWorld did suffer a clear defeat on April 11, when a US Court of Appeals panel in Washington, DC upheld a decision by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The court ruled that OSHA can limit contact between trainers and orcas unless they're protected by a barrier or other safety measures. Close contact was commonplace between orcas and trainers before Brancheau's death in 2010. After the court's ruling, SeaWorld officials said in a statement that the company has introduced new safety measures, including removing trainers from the water during shows, but "there will still be human interactions and performances with killer whales."
If Bloom's legislation eventually passes, it won't be the first of it's kind for cetaceans. In 2010, South Carolina adopted a law prohibiting anyone from keeping dolphins or whales for shows. The island of Maui has a similar policy. Internationally, India's Ministry of Environment and Forests last year banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity for entertainment. Croatia, Hungary, Chile, Costa Rica, and Slovenia have similar laws. Switzerland also banned the import of live dolphins and the United Kingdom and Brazil have strict rules about displaying cetaceans, Rose said.
But there's little doubt that legislation like AB 2140 would take a bite out of SeaWorld's profits. On March 7, when Bloom announced his bill, SeaWorld's stock dipped immediately. Likewise, a law that limits dolphins at parks could seriously undercut Six Flags' bottom line. The dolphin shows are a big attraction at the park, and, along with the regular park entrance fee, which is $62.99 for adults and $42.99 for children, the park charges up to $129.99 for a swim with the dolphins.
After dolphin shows, trainers come out into the stands and open up a cabinet with dolphin paintings, which they created by holding up a piece of paper and letting the dolphin smear paint on it with a paintbrush in their mouth. The park sells these paintings — as well as those by other animals — for up to $40. The park also sells dolphin-related and other animal souvenirs.
Representatives of Six Flags declined to comment for this report.
The two dolphin tanks at Six Flags that are open for viewing by park-goers are beautiful, turquoise, and clean. But they look like swimming pools — not the ocean.
The tanks, O'Barry said, are just concrete boxes filled with tap water, salt, and maybe chlorine. "It doesn't matter if you're an orca or a bottlenose dolphin like Flipper," he said, "when you put them in a concrete box it's more stressful than it is for any other animal in the zoo. Even a cold-blooded snake, with a very small brain, is given more consideration than a dolphin. It has grass, it has a stick it can climb on and rocks it can hide behind if it wants to get away from people."
Besides confining dolphins to unnaturally small spaces, amusement park tanks sound nothing like the ocean. In fact, the tanks sound like almost nothing at all. And that can be problem for dolphins, which use their hearing abilities much like humans use sight. Dolphins rely on echolocation, or sonar, to interact with each other and map the underwater world. This sense is so advanced that the US military began using dolphins in the 1960s to do underwater jobs and help develop new technology. Dolphins can see, too, but it's a much less important sense for them.
Because of that, being held captive in a featureless tank is akin to keeping a person in a room with white walls and little to look at except another human. But life at Six Flags and other show parks is not completely silent for cetaceans. Performing dolphins are also subject to very loud music during shows.
At Six Flags on March 16, the noon dolphin "Drench" show was set against a backdrop of what can only be described as nightclub-volume music — specifically, to the pumping, bumping beats of Ne-Yo's "Let Me Love You." Dolphins jumped out of the water, balanced balls on their noses, and used their tails to splash kids in the audience.
"They do that at all the dolphin shows," said O'Barry, who has traveled around the world to fight the use of dolphins for human entertainment. "The music is blaring and people are stomping their feet ... that's annoying and stressful. Do you do that to other animals in the zoo?
"The captivity industry has branded them as performing circus clowns," he added. Nonetheless, some scientists, including Rose, say that orcas fare worse than dolphins in captivity, and a key reason may be size. Because dolphins are smaller, it's easier for them to live in marine park tanks and they're less likely to seriously injure humans if they get upset.
Although many dolphins have died from the stress and injury of being captured, dolphins living in captivity may have similar life spans to dolphins in the wild, Rose said. Orcas — which can live as long as humans, up to 100 years old — often die in their teens or twenties in captivity. The oldest orca currently in captivity is about 50 years old, Rose said.
It's harder to know how long dolphins live in the wild, since individuals often move between pods and thus are hard for researchers to keep track of. In Sarasota, Florida, researchers estimated that bottlenose dolphins live from 17 to 20 years, but Rose pointed out that because that is a more urban environment, dolphins in more pristine ocean waters could easily live longer — much as some humans do when they live in a safer environment.
The differences between how well dolphins and orcas fare in captivity may also make it more difficult for animal welfare activists to eventually get a ban on dolphin shows enacted.
James Estes, a marine biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said it's hard to know if dolphins are depressed about being in captivity. "We have a hard enough time figuring out if we're happy," he said. "So this is a real problem. We really have no way of gauging .... How in the world do we ever judge the mental state of an animal other than through very gross, overt signs like survival ... or lethargy? ... It may be more of an anthropomorphic term. It may be whether they're stressed or not stressed.
"There's a whole other dimension of the question: Does it really matter?" continued Estes, who said he does not have strong views about captivity. No one wonders if fish in an aquarium are happy, he added. And it's even doubtful that pet owners can tell if their dog is happy or not, he said.
"It strikes me as being mostly opinion," he said. "Personally I don't have a problem with animals being in captivity for human benefit. We exploit animals in all sorts of ways in nature. So it doesn't give me heartburn," he said. "Cetaceans are amazing creatures and they're unique for what they are but so are so many other species."
Some visitors to Six Flags last month held similar views. "It doesn't bother me," said Mohsin Qamar as his one-year-old daughter peered through glass windows at the turquoise tank of the park's Toyota Stadium. Qamar said the dolphins at Six Flags look happy and healthy, especially compared to those he'd seen at parks in his native Pakistan. "I don't think they're abused," he said.
Qamar said that seeing the dolphins at Six Flags helped his daughter learn about the species and the ocean. Who knows, he said, she might even become a marine biologist some day.
SeaWorld officials have also asserted that their dolphins and orcas play an important role in teaching millions of people about animals they would never see otherwise. When people leave the park, park officials say, they have a greater appreciation for the sea and the creatures that live there.
But Rose and animal welfare activists contend that children and adults don't need to see dolphins or whales in tanks or shows to love them. "Kids love dinosaurs. How many dinosaurs have they seen? People love humpback whales. How many have they seen?" Rose said. "The idea that you need to see an animal in captivity to like it is inherently false."
One of the other arguments often made by supporters of dolphin show parks is that keeping the animals in captivity may be safer than living in the wild. "Here, we give them vitamins; we give them everything they need — we 'tube' them water if they need it to keep them hydrated," said Meyer, the intern trainer at Six Flags. "I think they have body mass calculations where we can tell how much they need to eat. The water is all regulated so that we can make sure there's nothing funky."
With so much pollution being dumped into the ocean, she argued, why should parks like Six Flags release the dolphins back into an environment that humans are filling with trash?
Over the years, numerous reports have indicated that garbage — such as plastic bags and Styrofoam — being dumped into the ocean is often consumed by marine mammals and fish, causing many of them to become sick or die. Noise pollution is also a concern for biologists studying marine mammals. The ocean has gotten a lot louder, according to reports on NPR's Living on Earth's "Sounds of the Sea," which aired in March. Noise from ships and offshore industrial activity may interfere with a dolphin's ability to "see" underwater, or with the ability of whales to communicate with each other over hundreds, possibly thousands of miles. "They're not healthy there," Meyer said of dolphins in the ocean. "So it's kind of like, save the ocean first."
But for Rose, O'Barry, and animal welfare activists, the idea that captivity protects dolphins from human-made dangers in the wild is absurd. "[They]'re not Noah's Ark," Rose said of amusement parks. "I find that inherently anti-conservation ... The challenges [dolphins] face in the wild is what they've evolved to handle."
Moreover, Six Flags has its own dangers. The park has been warned and cited repeatedly by the USDA for violating federal regulations by, for example, letting marine tanks fill up with algae and feces and failing to provide dolphins the shade they need to live a healthy life, according to government reports obtained by PETA (see "Troubles at Six Flags").
Still, compared to marine parks in some other countries, Rose said, SeaWorld and Six Flags are like luxury hotels. But, she said, "Better isn't good enough."
Rose also said that humans shouldn't assume that dolphins want the same things we want — that they want to live like us. "Another problem is the nine to five. When we have nine-to-five lives, sometimes we go a little stir-crazy right? It's not natural for them."
In the wild, Rose said, dolphins don't have a schedule. They can hunt, socialize, or rest any time, so the rhythms of night and day don't dictate when they sleep. But in parks, they have shows, and conform to a human schedule of working during the day and resting at night.
Performing in shows isn't a fundamentally bad thing, Rose said, since it keeps the animals occupied and staves off boredom. "What's bad about it is that it's not natural. It's a circus act and that's bad for people."
"We're teaching children all the wrong things," O'Barry added. "It's the children who watch these stupid anthropomorphic dolphin shows ... we tell them they have to be in captivity so people can save them ... we think they're smiling back at us."
But dolphin trainers contend that human interaction with the animals creates an important bond. "I was really nervous that it wasn't everything I thought it was going to be. But it is. Working with these animals, it's awesome," said Six Flags trainer Rutan after a dolphin show.
Rutan talked about her experience swimming with the dolphins, training them, even "surfing" them around the pool. She said it was amazing.
Meyer, the trainer intern, said she had wanted to work with the animals since she was a little girl. Both seemed genuinely excited about their work and expressed deep care and enthusiasm for the dolphins.
But from the perspective of former longtime dolphin trainer O'Barry, the Six Flags workers are not being completely honest. "If they think dolphins are better off in captivity, they're just trying to keep their exotic job," he said.
Still, he noted that it's difficult to convince some people that using animals for human entertainment is wrong. "It's very hard to see the problem — the problem is actually hidden by an optical illusion. The tank's got this beautiful turquoise-colored water. The dolphin is smiling back at you. So people ask me, 'What's the problem, O'Barry?'"
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