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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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.

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