Ric O’Barry left his job training dolphins for the TV Flipper series in the 1960s. Since then he’s been campaigning to close seaquariums, to shut down the entire captive dolphin industry, and most of all currently to stop the infamous dolphin drive hunts, as shown in the Oscar-winning movie The Cove. (Photo right.)We talked with him between trips to Eastern Europe and Japan to campaign for dolphins.
ZOE: In the 1960’s you used to train dolphins for the TV series Flipper. When did you start to change your mind?
Rick O’Barry: [It was] when I found out that dolphins are self-aware. I used to put the television set down by the pool so that Flipper could watch Flipper on TV at 7:30 on Friday nights. And I realized they were self-aware and then the next step is to question, well, why they are in captivity if they are self-aware? And so I left that industry. I’ve been trying for years to get the Association of Zoos and Aquaria involved in what is going on in [the dolphin drive hunts in] Taiji because I have come to believe that the captures that take place there are the economic underpinning of the dolphin slaughter. If the industry–and this is a multi-billion industry, I mean Sea World alone made $1.4 billion dollars in profit last year — if they started policing their own industry we could shut down this dolphin slaughter.
ZOE: Why do you think they don’t? Why don’t they police it?
So Japan is the smoking gun, which, I think, proves displaying dolphins isn’t really going to help out at all. The big lie is that this is about conservation and research, and I just don’t buy it.
ZOE: You’ve been out swimming with dolphins in the wild, which is an entirely different experience. Say a little about what you learn about them there, what the experience is.
R.O’B.: I go to a place in the Bahamas where wild dolphins are and where I’ve been diving, not so much swimming because you’re on the surface of the water swimming, you don’t really have much of an experience with the dolphins. It’s really about diving, getting underwater where they are.
There are a couple places where I go, one in Bimini and one in the Little Bahama Banks, and Key West and other places. And when I show up, the dolphins actually initiate the contact. They show up at the boat, we drop the anchor and things settle down. I get in the water and they control the interaction. They are in complete control and after a while they get bored with me and they swim away. It’s the exact opposite of what you experience with a captive dolphin, where they have no choices and no decisions and their job is to amuse an endless line of people.
[In the wild,] they’re curious for a while and then they’re gone. And that’s the way it should be. The last time I was there, we pulled up the anchor, we were going back to port and the dolphins disappeared and I didn’t know where they were. There’s something wonderful about that, not knowing where they are and what they’re doing, the mystery of that. It’s the opposite in captivity. When you get out of the tank swimming with a dolphin swim program, you know exactly what they’re doing. They have an endless line of people to amuse. That’s their job. These are dolphins with jobs.
ZOE: What is your sense of what’s going on in their minds when they are swimming with you?
R.O’B.: Well, I’ve been around them for about 50 years now and I have lived with them literally at the Miami Seaquarium. I don’t know what they’re thinking for all the same reasons I don’t know what you’re thinking. But I know they’re curious about us and I know they’re self-aware.
If you go out in the wild and watch dolphins and you read their body language, they’re saying something. They are actually saying something with their body language. You can see the same thing if you go out in a forest. Wolves do the same thing and wild animals: they avoid us. They’re telling us: “Leave us alone”. I mean, if the dolphins could speak, that’s what they would say, “Leave us alone”. They’re already saying that with their body language. You only have to look at them to see that. You know, if they wanted to communicate and be in our life they would simply swim ashore to the beach, all of the dolphins and [say] “Take me in.” They are not doing that. They’re telling us: “Leave us alone”.But we don’t listen.
ZOE: So, if you had your way what would happen to seaquariums and the captive dolphins tomorrow or the next while? Do you think it would be possible to let some or most or even all of them to actually go back to the wild?
R.O’B.: We’ve been capturing them and displaying them since 1938. There are dolphins all over Europe and different parts of the world that were born inside of a building. So when you say “go back to the wild,” they don’t know what the wild is. They don’t even know what the tide is or the current or the natural rhythms of the sea. They’ve never seen a live fish. They don’t know what that is. They think that the ceiling is the sky. These are freaks that we have created for our amusement.
Can we put them in the ocean and expect them to survive? I doubt it. I question the mental health of a lot of the dolphins as well, because I’ve tried to release some that had been in captivity for a very long time and I feel that if a human had been through the same experiences as many of these captive dolphins experienced, we’d be crazed. And some of them are crazed. I think some of them are mentally unhealthy.
So, to answer your question, if I had a magic wand, I would stop all the captures. I would stop captive breeding at all of these facilities. I would get involved in research in birth control. There isn’t any reason for a dolphin to be born in a building or in a tank. None whatsoever. And let them just phase out. That’s the solution, I think.
More importantly, the public and the message, and I’ll be giving that message, I hope, at the Academy Awards to an audience of a billion people. When I get a chance like that on live television, I tell people: “Don’t buy a ticket.” That’s the solution. It’s based on supply and demand like any other product.
So, the message is “Don’t buy a ticket.” It sounds very simplistic, I know, but that is the solution.
Ric O’Barry’s site is Save Japan Dolphins. He’s also part of the International Marine Mammal Project at the Earth Island Institute, which has an extensive article about Ric and his work in their magazine