In real life, swimming with captive dolphins is not good for them or us
By Michael Mountain
Early last year, I got an invitation for Zoe to be part of the promotional effort for a movie called Dolphin Tale. The movie was going to be about a dolphin called Winter who’d been rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and fitted with a prosthetic tail. It would be starring Morgan Freeman, and filming was due to start shortly.
Here’s what I wrote back:
I’m familiar with Winter and her prosthetic tail. A remarkable achievement. One thing, though, is that we gather the aquarium is involved in captive dolphin swim programs. Would these be featured in the movie?
I know that much of the work of the aquarium is with rescue and rehab, but swim programs are a real problem for captive dolphins in tanks. Animal protection organizations are unanimous in saying that they should be stopped. And here at Zoe we are opposed to the capture or captive breeding of dolphins for entertainment purposes. (Nor is there any scientific evidence that “therapeutic” swim programs have any intrinsic value for humans.)
I didn’t get a reply, and probably went onto the list of people not to send a review copy of the movie to.
Last week, Dolphin Tale sailed out of the water to become the #1 hit at movie theaters, ahead of Moneyball and The Lion King. Critics generally gave it a thumbs-up, at least as a children’s movie.
(“Grown-ups or older siblings,” wrote the New York Times, “will have to choke down a sizable dose of schmaltz with their fish milkshakes.”)
And if the movie version is half fiction, most moviegoers didn’t seem to mind. After all, at the end of the film there are real-life clips of war veterans on crutches, amputees in wheelchairs and small children without arms and legs, visiting the dolphin and petting and kissing her. And moviegoers are encouraged to make a donation. As a result, daily visitors to the aquarium quadrupled (to roughly 1,300 a day) in the first week the movie was out. And hopes are high that all of this will help the aquarium raise the $12 million needed to rebuild the crumbling former sewage treatment plant that houses Winter and several other dolphins, as well as sea turtles, sea otters, and other rescued wildlife.
The problem with dolphin swim programs
Overall, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is in a quite different category from the average commercial SeaWorld-type circuses and the typical “Swim with the Dolphins” programs. So it seems a bit churlish to pour some cold water on their work.
The problem, however, is that the aquarium has its own swim-with-the-dolphins program, and the movie cannot help but give the nod to other captive dolphin shows and swim programs.
At Clearwater, you pay $249 per person to get in the water with a dolphin. According to the aquarium’s promo:
“This amazing experience will allow participants to experience an in-water encounter with our famous dolphins … Get closer than ever before and see for yourself why they captivate hearts and inspire people around the world.”
But fundamentally, the whole idea of getting in the water with captive dolphins is just plain wrong.
A typical program tells us: “Touch, kiss and hug the dolphin and enjoy lots of free time with them in the water.” But the dolphins aren’t really kissing you. They’re simply trained to do what they do in exchange for a reward of fish.
Captive swim programs are basically a scam. Often they’re promoted as being therapeutic for conditions like autism. Parents pay thousands of dollars for this “therapy,” believing that a dolphin might be able to bring these children out of themselves. But no such results have ever been demonstrated.
And while swimming with a captive dolphin in a tank is probably a memorable experience, it’s the wrong kind of experience. The basic lesson it teaches is that it’s just fine to capture and breed wild animals who would otherwise be roaming the oceans, confine them in a small tank, and use them for our own pleasure.
Bottlenose dolphins are considered by scientists to be the most intelligent of all non-human animals. There’s much we can learn from them in a relationship that’s on their terms – i.e. in the ocean. But everything we’ve ever learned from them in captivity points clearly to one simple conclusion: They don’t belong in captivity.
We can be glad that Winter has her new tail, and grateful for all that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has done for her and will continue to do for other sick and injured animals.
But it would have been better if they hadn’t compromised their values. What Winter needs now is to be in a coastal sanctuary where she can feel the real ocean – not living out her life in a display tank. And organizations like Clearwater should be giving young people the clear message that healthy dolphins deserve their liberty just as much as we do.