Dolphins in captivity may commit suicide
- Published: 16 January 2010
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Don't be fooled by a captive dolphin's 'smile'. Many become so depressed that they kill themselves, writes former 'Flipper' trainer turned dolphin crusader Ric O'Barry.
In situations of great stress in captivity they (dolphins) have been known to commit suicide by starvation, battering against walls, or drowning.—The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition 2001-05.
When you consider that dolphins and other whales have been around on this planet for at least 50 million years, compared with much less than a single million years for us human beings, you have to wonder how we got control so quickly over them. They have larger brains than we have. They’re bigger and stronger, faster, sleeker and altogether more perfectly formed than we are.
And yet, just as we have come to dominate 30 per cent of the world (that which is above water) in the short time we’ve been around, we could say that dolphins and other whales are the dominate species in the other 70 percent, which is water.
The bottom line is that we’re both at the top in our separate worlds, cetaceans in their watery domain, we on land. When we scan the horizon for similarities, we have a moment of recognition because we’re actually very much alike. We’re both mammals, for instance, mammals of a high order for we’re both self-aware, and we’ve both adapted almost perfectly to the world we live in.
As mammals we both breathe air, mothers in both worlds suckle their young in loving family groups around which is woven a way of living that fosters social rules maintaining a balance like the golden mean of ancient Greece.
At least that’s true of dolphins and other whales.
Where did we go wrong? What happened in our world to make so many of us rush with such abandon into the exploitation of our counterparts in the other 70 percent of the world? Why do we capture these beautiful fellow creatures and make them objects of fun? And oddly enough the most fun we seem to have is capturing them, pinning them up and making them pull us through the water, one after the other.
Why would anyone who understood what was actually going on enjoy this? How can we, who do understand what’s going on, tolerate it? And how can those who exploit dolphins and other whales do so without a ripple of conscience, as if they had a right to?
Well, as we all know, the short answer is that we have a history of this. You may recall that slavery was only recently put aside as an okay thing to do. Almost certainly that happened because it was no longer economically feasible. Indeed where it is feasible, as in enforced prostitution of children and things like that, it still goes on like crazy.
Maybe at the heart of all this is our sophisticated world-wide economic system whose goal is to maximize profits regardless of collateral damage. But the history of slavery in general is a clue to how we can stop this travesty. If we stop it from being profitable, it will go away.
The first so-called dolphinarium began in 1938 at Marine Studios in St. Augustine, Florida, USA. Now there are scores of dolphinaria all over the world, and more all the time are being established. If you could collect all the abuse to dolphins and other whales, the pain, the horror, frustration, the dolphin suicides, the cries for help—if you were to gather all these atrocities from over the years it would be like a thousand hells.
Most countries would not permit this abuse for the real reason they exist: money. Most countries have laws against cruelty to animals, laws that began early in the 19th Century. But obviously these laws have a loophole because, despite all our efforts, displaying dolphins publicly for money is now a multi-billion dollar industry.
Hunters of dolphins, suppliers and shippers, marketers, park construction workers, trainers—this list goes on and on and they all cash in. Some nations allow it because they’ve got bigger problems. Some nations see nothing wrong with it. The rest allow it for the wrong reason: that it’s educational.
They say that many people would never get to see a dolphin except for the dolphinaria. But what about all the people who will never see a snow leopard? saber-toothed tiger? Or the do-do bird? On and on.
Taken even at face value, their argument is a fraud, because these dolphinaria are not educational, they’re anti-educational. They show not a dolphin in his own world but a trained dolphin, a dolphin trained to act like a clown, in our world.
And then they have the unmitigated gall, the chutzpah, to tell us, “Look! See how they smile? They love doing tricks for us!”
Don’t be fooled. Those dolphins are not smiling. If one of those dolphins were to fall dead on the dock, he would still wear that look and it would still not be a smile.
It may be tempting to point out that we are not personally to blame for what is happening to dolphins and other whales. And that’s true. We don’t personally capture them and put them in what to them are tiny torture chambers, and we don’t withhold food till they perform silly little acrobatic tricks to our liking.
We’re not to blame, not a single one of us, in the same way we’re not to blame for the world’s murders, arsons, kidnappings and so on. We’re not to blame because (1) we don’t personally do these things and (2) we’ve helped pass laws against them, laws with good stiff penalties that express our desire to make the world free from such abuse.
We pass laws against murder, kidnapping and all the rest not because of some abstraction about society or the rule of law, but because we’re sick of it. We’ve had enough. Just like now we’re revolted by those who capture dolphins in the wild and imprison them for the rest of their lives.
They capture dolphins in the wild but claim to replace them by letting them breed in captivity. This too is a fraud. Dolphins born in captivity never learn to catch a live fish in the wild and are unequipped to live there.
A lot of misguided talk surrounds another similarity between human beings and dolphins in captivity: their committing suicide when stressed. When dolphins in captivity are greatly stressed, they sometimes obviously feel the need to escape by whatever means.
This is a big problem because they don’t have guns or poison as we do in such circumstances. What can they do? Some of these dolphins batter themselves to death against the walls of their prison. Others refuse to eat until they waste away and die. Dolphins and other whales are not like any other mammal in the way they breathe.
While humans and all the other mammals breathe automatically, dolphins don’t have that automatic reflex; every breath they take is deliberate. When human beings fall into deep water, we drown because we lose consciousness and then, when the automatic reflex kicks in, we breathe water.
Not so the dolphin. The dolphin will kill himself by drowning if he deliberately breathes water, but, more likely, he dies for lack of oxygen in his blood caused by not breathing at all. This suicide option the dolphin takes is another proof of his self-awareness, without which suicide would never even occur to him
If words alone, if logic, reason, facts and history were enough to destroy the dolphin industry that has warped our lives, they would be long gone now.
We need more than words, we need laws to stop them. We know that it cannot be done overnight. It may take many years. We may even have to compromise a little. But now is the time to start eliminating this evil or it will never happen in our lifetime.
Ric O'Barry is a marine mammal specialist at the Earth Island Institute. In the 1960s he trained the dolphins used in the hit TV show Flipper. After one of them died in his arms, he became a crusader to free captive dolphins. He is featured in the award-winning documentary thriller The Cove.
Photo courtesty of David.Nikonvscanon http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikonvscanon/2427517405/ issued under Creative Commons Licence.