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.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Readers also liked…

Latest in Feature

  • Role Reversals in the Oakland Mayor's Race

    In the Oakland mayor's race, the normally staid Libby Schaaf has come out swinging, while one of her top challengers, the usually brash Cat Brooks, is acting more like a Fortune 500 CEO.
    • Oct 17, 2018
  • Richmond at a Crossroads

    The city is on the verge of an economic boom: Will Mayor Tom Butt, a longtime city official, lead it to prosperity, or will the Richmond Progressive Alliance take full control of City Hall?
    • Oct 17, 2018
  • Island Gone Wild

    This has been a crazy year in Alameda politics, and it's about to get crazier.
    • Oct 17, 2018
  • More »

Author Archives

  • Troubles at Six Flags

    The Vallejo amusement park has received numerous warnings related to its treatment of cetaceans.
    • Apr 23, 2014
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

  • The Express' November 2018 Endorsement Guide

    We endorse Schaaf, Ezzy Ashcraft, and Butt; along with Fortunato Bas, Thao, Middleton, and Whitaker for Oakland council and Knox White and Oddie for Alameda council.
  • A New Berkeley Council?

    With two longtime councilmembers retiring and two vulnerable newcomers defending their seats, half of the city council could be gone next year.
  • A Guide to Oakland's Ballot Measures

    Six measures on the November ballot include new taxes, tax breaks, changes to existing taxes, worker and tenant protections, and education funding.
  • Oakland Organic Gardener Wins Battle Against Roundup

    Diane Williams fought for two years to stop Oakland Unified from spraying the likely carcinogenic herbicide. And, finally, she was vindicated.
  • Two PACs Take Aim at Desley Brooks

    Building trades unions and some supporters of Mayor Libby Schaaf and ex-Mayor Jean Quan are hoping to oust Brooks, but the councilmember’s backers say the PACs are misrepresenting her record.

Special Reports

Fall Arts 2018

Our Picks for the Best Events of the Fall Arts Season

The Queer & Trans Issue 2018

Stories about creating safe spaces in the Queer and Trans community.

© 2018 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation