By Robin Rodi, originally published in the Marin Independent Journal.
Now that the temperatures are warmer and the days are longer, you may be making plans to get your kids outside as much possible. There are lots of options out there — everything from hiking the Marin Headlands to visiting Alcatraz to attending a Giants game or even riding the cable cars. Many of these opportunities combine fun with education and sometimes even environmental stewardship.
Last spring, I took my sons to a Bay Area amusement park for the thrill of riding roller coasters. While there, we discovered tanks full of marine mammals and dolphin shows. At first, my sons were excited by the magnificent animals but after noting their enclosures and behavior, they became concerned.
“There’s not enough space. They must be so bored. That one looks sick. They shouldn’t be in here.”
Their observations were accurate and I could not justify the conditions. Saying the animals were there to educate people rang hollow. We left on a sad note that day, knowing the dolphins would be swimming in circles for years to come.
Dolphins shouldn’t be kept in tanks. There is a mountain of research showing why captivity and dolphins are incompatible. First, dolphins are large-brained, highly intelligent animals scoring just behind humans and ahead of great apes. They have sophisticated forms of communication, problem solving, reasoning, memory and navigation skills.
Second, dolphins live in complex societies in the open ocean. In the wild, they are constantly on the move and can travel up to 80 miles a day. They’re self-aware and live in fluid social networks. They even recognize other dolphins that they haven’t seen in years.
Dolphins also have a limbic system like humans and can experience a wide range of emotions, including happiness, grief, frustration, anger, and love. The specialized neurons in their brains are linked to intuition and empathy.
With such complex psychological and physiological needs, it’s not hard to see why captivity is a particularly stressful experience for dolphins. Many die during capture from the wild and are separated from their companions and social groups. Others are obtained through captive breeding programs that result in high death rates, inbreeding and severe behavior abnormalities.
Fortunately, attitudes about the treatment of exotic animals in captivity is evolving. Sea World recently pledged to end its orca shows and breeding programs. Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus retired its elephants last year, and many cities and even entire countries are enacting laws that prohibit exotic animal shows and captivity.
For example, Mexico City banned the use of captive dolphins and other marine mammals in shows starting this year. India has also forbidden the use of dolphins for entertainment purposes, going so far as to deem them “nonhuman persons.” The National Aquarium in Baltimore ceased all dolphin shows and pledged to establish an oceanside dolphin sanctuary by 2020 where its dolphin colony will be moved.
“We now know more about dolphins and their care, and can use that knowledge to implement positive change,” the aquarium’s chief executive officer John Racanelli said. “We need to do what’s best for the dolphins.”
So how can we help end the captivity of dolphins and other marine mammals? Easy — don’t visit amusement parks with captive dolphins. If our dollars continue to support them, they will continue to capture and breed dolphins. Watching a dolphin perform flips on command to loud pulsing music is hardly educational. Instead, look for alternatives. Take your family on a whale-watching trip out of San Francisco — there are numerous options. Support organizations that have chosen to keep marine mammals in their natural environment like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Take a walk on Ocean Beach or along the Lands End Trail where breaching whales and several species of dolphins can be spotted in late spring and summer. Visit the Marine Mammal Center where hundreds of sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals can be viewed as they are rehabilitated and returned to the ocean each year.
As for me, I plan to follow the lead of my kids and forego the roller coasters screaming over the captive dolphins. We’re going to head down to Crissy Field instead and watch them play free in the bay.