Thursday, June 16, 2016

So the Dolphins at the National Aquarium are going to a Sanctuary...

The views expressed below are completely my own.

On Tuesday June 14, 2016 the National Aquarium announced that it is planning to move its eight Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins from their current pools to an oceanside sanctuary by the year 2020. 

There are going to be plenty of individuals, including animal rights activists, who will applaud this decision.  Praising the relocation effort will become very popular in the press and social media.  However, before we pop open the champagne in celebration, we need to take a step back and actually consider what this means for the eight amazing animals who will be directly affected by this decision. 

First of all, I want to be clear that I care about the safety and well being of these eight individuals and all animals both in the wild and in zoos.  I wholeheartedly believe that humans need to do CONSIDERABLY more to protect species and ecosystems.  However, I have to admit that I find the National Aquarium’s announcement disturbing for a number of reasons.

 “Sanctuary” sounds like a nice word but…
Where will the money come from?  That’s a major question.  In the zoological field, “Sanctuaries” have a stigma of being locations that are vastly underfunded, and it is the animals who suffer the consequences.

The article that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on Tuesday stated that “[The Aquarium] did not announce the sanctuary’s expected cost but said it is seeking philanthropic investments to fund the project.”  Those investors had better have some deep pockets.  This kind of facility will cost millions to construct.  And what happens if the money isn’t raised?  Will the dolphins be sent to a sub par facility? 

Even if they do raise enough money to construct the sanctuary, they had better be positive that they have enough to maintain it because….

Some of these animals will live up to forty more years, or even longer.   
The topic of marine mammals in aquariums is huge right now but what happens in the years 2026 or 2036 or 2046 when the sanctuary is no longer making headlines and investors have moved on?  The sanctuary will still need to guarantee that they have a constant flow of money that never dries up or else the quality of care that the dolphins receive will plummet, leading to sickness and death.  Millions of dollars will have to be pumped into this facility every year, which takes me to my next point. 

These aren’t the only eight dolphins in the world.
Imagine the countless wild dolphins (and other species) who would benefit if this money was spent on conservation efforts. It seems that humanity has gone out of its way to poison ecosystems in every way we can think of.  Therefore, instead of spending this fortune on a handful of animals who are already living in a safe environment with clean water and receiving more love and attention than many children in the city of Baltimore (or across the world), maybe we should spend these millions to protect the billions of wild animals who are desperately fighting to survive in a world we are destroying.

So why would investors want to spend their money on a project that will (supposedly) help just a handful of animals when they could spend it on projects that could save billions more?

Sorry to Break it to you but this is a political decision
The Baltimore Sun article states, “In an opinion piece appearing Tuesday in the Baltimore Sun, Racanelli [The aquarium’s CEO] said the decision is in the best interest of the dolphins….” 

Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more evident that animal care is coming second to giving in to some very vocal opinions.  This move is only taking place to appease a public that have formed uninformed views on dolphin care because….

Apparently Everyone is a Marine Mammal Expert Now.
This is a tough point to make because no one likes to be told that they don’t know as much about a topic as they think they do, but let’s be honest, watching a 90 minute movie (even if it’s called a documentary) does not make you an expert. 

Most of the people in the public who think that this is a good move are not working in the animal care field (more on that in a moment).

Armchair activism, “liking” gifs on Facebook, and sharing one-sided articles, is becoming increasingly popular because it is so easy.  I wholeheartedly agree that everyone deserves an opinion but it seems that the individuals with the most vocal opinions on issues like dolphins in aquariums are not doing the research required to form well rounded opinions.  Instead they are getting their information from misleading activists and movies and don’t forget…. 

 You can’t believe everything you see in the movies. 
The Baltimore Sun article makes reference to films like Free Willy, Blackfish and The Cove as being works that are changing public opinion on aquariums. 

Well, Free Willy is a work of fiction and led to the death of the whale, Keiko, who played the title character.  After Free Willy was released the outcry against Keiko’s captivity was so great that millions of dollars were spent to relocate and rehabilitate him.  He was released and found dead months later.  Animal activists still consider this a big win even though the animal they were fighting for died. 

I don’t know why The Cove was mentioned in the article because dolphins being slaughtered in Japan has nothing to do with an aquarium in Maryland.  American facilities do not collect dolphins from the ocean (that was made illegal in 1972), and the National Aquarium has made it clear that they do not condone these types of drive fisheries.  For those who still think aquariums in the USA receive animals from these drives, the type of dolphin featured in The Cove is a different species than the ones at the National Aquarium.

As for the infamous Blackfish, this “documentary” is the rallying cry for many who believe in “emptying the tanks.”  However it has again and again been criticized for using out of date information regarding mammal training, presenting information and interviews out of context, and providing supposed “facts” that are simply not true.  This movie is not a work of journalism, it’s an opinion piece.   

However, this movie gave the public the impression that they know what’s best for these incredible, complex animals, but it gave a completely skewed point of view. Now eight intelligent animals are being put in danger because many very vocal activists believe a movie that is essentially a work of fiction. 

So who does know what’s best for the dolphins? 

Here’s a crazy thought, maybe we should talk to the individuals who train dolphins about what they think should happen. 
No one loves these animals more than the people who work with them every day. 

Yes, I know the public loves them and so do the activists, but it’s the trainers who work with these incredible animals every day.  They are the ones who experience how intelligent they are, feed them, play with them, have conversations with them (yes it happens) and provide them with amazing medical care.  It’s the individuals who work with dolphins on a daily basis who love them the most and want what’s actually best for them.     

Don’t believe me?  Have you ever looked at a dolphin trainer’s paycheck?  They’re not doing it for the money.  No one would spend years giving up their weekends and holidays to scrub buckets (for free) if they didn’t truly love these animals.

The Baltimore Sun article interviews a lot of “experts” in the field as well as the CEO, but you know whose voice does not appear?  Any of the people who spend countless hours every year (coming in on Thanksgiving and Christmas) caring for the dolphins.  That’s just shoddy journalism. 

The individuals who know the dolphins the best aren’t the ones making decisions.
As I touched on before, this move is being made for political reasons.  No one who is personally invested in the dolphin’s well being is having a direct hand in this. 

I’ve already mentioned the problem of money before and unfortunately it could lead to some well intentioned but ignorant investors actually harming the dolphins.  What happens when a philanthropist says, “Okay, I’ll write you this fat check BUT you have to meet these demands?”  It’s the same thing that happens in politics all the time.  The sanctuary will be controlled by whoever has the money.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself because at this point the dolphins haven’t even gotten to the sanctuary yet and….

The Transportation Will be Traumatic
The Baltimore Sun article makes several references to dolphins being intelligent, emotionally complex animals (which they are).  So imagine what it would be like to be an intelligent, emotionally complex animal who has spent her or his whole life in a particular environment (Six out of the eight were born at the aquarium.  The other two came from different aquariums.).  Suddenly you are pulled out of that environment, placed in a cramped container and forced to travel thousands of miles.

As intelligent as dolphins are, no one can explain to them, “It’s okay, you’re going to a new home where you will be ‘free.’”  It will simply be the most terrifying experience of their lives and it will take place without any rhyme or reason in the animal’s eyes.  All they will know is that they were in an environment they were used to with their social groups and now they’re not. 

Speaking of Social Groups…
There are three sections of the Baltimore Sun article that reference the dolphin’s strong social dynamic, and these really are very social creatures. 

However, the article does not mention that because of this move many of the animals that have known each other their entire lives may never see one another again.  There is an extremely good chance that not all of the eight dolphins will be considered appropriate candidates for the sanctuary (something that is glossed over in the article).  So that means that the social groups the article praises will most likely be broken up.  Mothers and children, siblings and best friends may not see each other ever again because the aquarium is giving in to political fury.  
And What Happens When they get there?
The Baltimore Sun article states that the “ideal site” will contain “stimuli such as marine plants and fish.” 

Keep in mind that all but one of these eight dolphins have never lived in the ocean.  They aren’t used to marine plants and many have never seen a live fish before.  How do you think an intelligent animal will respond when she or he is suddenly surrounded by creatures and objects they have never encountered before?  She or he won’t understand that they’re “free.”  They will panic and be overwhelmed by stress.  Imagine how you would react if you were taken from your home and placed in an environment you know nothing about surrounded by moving things that, as far as you know, could be dangerous. 

And then there’s the very real risk that the dolphins will ingest the mangrove roots and sea grapes and other “natural stimuli” that are presented in such a positive light by the articles.  This could lead to serious illness. These animals, intelligent as they are, have never experienced tides, thunderstorms, temperature fluctuations, jellyfish, barriers that they may not be able to see, other animals sharing their space, and the list just goes on and on.
If this plan goes through the Dolphins will be “Free” to Swim in Garbage
Also let’s not forget that the water they will be swimming in will be (according to the current description) coming directly from the ocean, which means that it will be full of litter and pollutants.  That’s right, all of this money and effort is being spent so these eight dolphins who are used to a secure, clean environment will get to swim in filthy water. 

And Then The Hurricane Arrives….
The potential sights listed in the Baltimore Sun article are Florida and the Caribbean, which have giant bullseyes on them for hurricanes.  Now I know that millions of dolphins all over the world have to survive hurricanes every year but the aquarium’s eight dolphins have never experienced harsh weather in the open water.  There is no way we would be able to prepare them that for that kind of trauma.  And I’m sure that even for dolphins who live in the wild, the experience can be extremely stressful and terrifying.  And hurricanes are only the tip of the iceberg.  What about red tides?  Morbillivirus? Noise pollution?  Climate change?

These dolphins are doing good exactly where they are. 
The Baltimore Sun article quotes a veterinarian for PETA, Heather Rally, as saying, “Taking an animal out of its natural habitat and putting in an unnatural enclosure where it’s unhealthy and unhappy and putting it on display for children is sending a negative message for children.”

I just want to point out that seven of these eight dolphins in this colony were born in aquariums.  They were not “taken” from anywhere.  The eighth was has been in an aquarium setting for over four decades.  The oceans have changed drastically since then. 

As for the “Will someone please think of the children” aspect of this quote, this is the only chance that many kids who come to the aquarium will get to see dolphins up close.  When kids (or people in general) encounter large animals in zoos or aquariums the animals become more real.  The guests care more about the species and animals in general.  The aquarium draws 1.3 million visitors a years.  That’s 1.3 million individuals who meet these amazing animals and realize that they are more than just cute plush toys or images on T-shirts. And that is vital if we want future generations to respect the animals we share our planet with. 

Unfortunately this is a hard message to get across.
The difficulty with the point I am trying to make is that it is a very complex argument.  It’s hard to compress into media sound bites or protest signs.  Many activists automatically assume that anyone who doesn’t agree with them hates animals and the environment.

On the other hand, the simple concept of “emptying the tanks” and releasing the dolphins into a strange environment has, unfortunately, become very popular both in social and traditional media.  At the end of the day, these activists may truly love dolphins (you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t), however they haven’t thought through the consequences of dumping animals into an alien ecosystem.  If that happened to people, most of us would die.  Do you think dolphins would be any different?

Many people around the world want what’s best for these animals, but we can’t give in to misinformation and propaganda.  We need to rely on experts who actually know these animals and work with them every day.  Otherwise these eight incredible dolphins may find their social groups split, and those who are sent to the sanctuary will be facing an uncertain, most likely very stressful, future.

Wouldn’t it be better to spend this money on conservation efforts to help the species as a whole?  We all love dolphins, but those of us who want to affect their future need to be certain that they are educated with facts (not just propaganda) and think through what is best for these animals, not giving in to political trends.