The Dolphin Dilemma 

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

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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.

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