A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Two Aquariums, Two Choices

Artist’s rendering of the National Aquarium’s planned dolphin sanctuary.

Just as the National Aquarium at Baltimore was announcing bold plans to create a seaside sanctuary in Florida or the Caribbean for its eight dolphins, a dolphin exploitation company was pressing ahead to open a swim-with-dolphins program in the Arizona desert.

Yes, dolphins in the middle of the blazing, drought-stricken desert outside of Phoenix. The entertainment company Dolphinaris is building a million-gallon tank of chlorinated water that will be evaporating almost as fast as they can keep it filled from the Colorado River at Lake Powell, hundreds of miles away.

At the National Aquarium, CEO John Racanelli is going where no aquarium in North America has gone before. While his peers at places like SeaWorld, Miami Seaquarium and Georgia Aquarium stubbornly try to fight the tide of change, Racanelli is pressing ahead to do what’s right by the dolphins. As he wrote in The Baltimore Sun:

Through feedback painstakingly gathered over 10 years, we have learned that the American public is increasingly uneasy with the notion of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity.

Not surprisingly, Racanelli’s announcement was greeted somewhat tepidly by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the trade association for the U.S. zoological industry:

Every member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums must make animal welfare decisions appropriate for the animals in its care … The National Aquarium will be working closely with the applicable federal and state agencies as they undertake the relocation and as the animals adapt to their new environment.

Not exactly a vote of enthusiasm! But at least the AZA didn’t decide to expel the National Aquarium from its list of accredited organizations, as it did to the Detroit Zoo, several years ago, when CEO Ron Kagan decided to retire the zoo’s elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in California.

OdySea-Aquarium-480While Racanelli cares about the wellbeing of his dolphins, the folks at Dolphinaris, which already has swim-with-dolphin outfits at several Mexican resorts, couldn’t care less.

They decided, for example, to locate their new facility on land that’s part of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa reservation, where neither the Arizona Game and Fish Department nor the state’s Department of Agriculture have any oversight.

Another aquarium, the 35-acre OdySea in the Desert, along with a casino, a baseball stadium and a Top Golf entertainment complex are close by.

According to Grey Stafford, general manager of Dolphinaris and a former SeaWorld dolphin trainer, the animals love their concrete tanks and even “participate in their own care through voluntary blood draws.” (“Hey, Doc, could I get another of those nice blood tests today?”)

Dolphinaris Arizona Rendering - 2
Architectural rendering of Dolphinaris facility. The swim-with-dolphins pool is lower left.

Stafford trots out the standard “educational” line, saying that his swim program will be following federal guidelines to educate the public about conserving the species in their care. And he tells local media that “trainers will be building a rapport with the guests, answering questions, providing scientific and conservation messages.”

But exactly what scientific and conservation message do ignorant tourists get from spending a few minutes in a concrete tank in the desert with a captive dolphin who had to be flown there from Mexico?

Hopefully, at least, they won’t get bitten, as happened when two newly-weds from Sweden were on their honeymoon at a resort off the coast of Cancun. After buying a “swim with the dolphins” ticket, the bride, Sabina Cadbrand, got in the pool with about a dozen other tourists and stood in a line splashing the dolphins. The dolphins were supposed to splash back, but one of them, Picasso, became aggressive and bit the bride on her leg.

Wrecking the lives of animals who belong with their families in the ocean, not in a concrete pool in the desert“I felt the dolphin had my whole thigh in his mouth and then I realized I had been bitten, and it was very painful.” she said.

Everyone started panicking and screaming. “It was like the scene from the movie Jaws,” her husband complained.

Other people were also bitten, including a middle-aged woman who had to be rushed to a hospital, bleeding heavily with a wound that went down to the bone.

Frankly, it’s a testimony to the patience of these animals that it took Picasso and his co-prisoners 20 years holed up at a miserable tourist attraction before they finally got fed up and decided to stick it to the inane humans who’d bought a ticket to “play” with them.

In today’s world, we all find ourselves having to make a decision over how we will relate to our fellow animals. John Racanelli and the National Aquarium (which has never had a swim-with-dolphins program) are taking the courageous, caring step forward of giving their dolphins a more natural life. Grey Stafford and his grey masters at Dolphinaris are choosing the path of self-interest as they go about wrecking the lives of animals who belong with their own families in their own ocean homes, not in a concrete pool in the desert.