It is no secret that many of us want to be close to whales and dolphins. The honest truth is that most of us want to be close, sometimes at any cost. Until we know the truth, we might even feel entitled to it. We have a natural affinity for these animals that extends back centuries into the cultural heritage of our modern civilizations, and it is undeniable. Past public opinion polls have recognized this desire, including a fairly recent BBC poll identifying the number one activity that people wanted to do before they died: swim with dolphins. Captive facilities have catered to and exploited our love for these animals by packaging an experience that appears to be made from heaven—an opportunity to get up close and personal with these animals in a blatantly unnatural, but seemingly attractive and controlled, setting. As a society, we have been seduced by the lights, the shows, the spectacular tricks, and the glamorous and intimate relationships between whales and humans that are manufactured for our consumption.
Now, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquaria have released a new Harris Poll that indicates the public endorses captive facilities, and believes them to be more educational than even the classroom. And it also seems to support the BBC poll’s conclusions that swimming with dolphins is high on the public’s list of things to do. However, the poll leaves out a lot of important points, and is merely reflective of a public that only knows one side of the story. The poll asks no questions about seeing marine mammals in the wild, or questions that might suggest there are other ways to learn about and experience marine mammals outside the confines of a facility. Many of the questions are leading or flawed in producing a predetermined positive conclusion that captivity is the best or only way to appreciate marine mammals and learn about them. The poll’s first question leads the responder to necessarily support captivity because it suggests that this might be the only way a child might see them in his or her lifetime (“aquariums are important because children might not get to see them in the wild”). More realistically, if the public can afford travel to SeaWorld or most other aquaria, they have traveled far enough to see these animals in the wild. Many of these facilities are located on or near the coast, oftentimes just yards away from where these animals swim free within their family groups. Furthermore, ‘seeing’ these animals in person is certainly not a prerequisite for loving them or being concerned about their wellbeing and protection.
And missing are the questions regarding the unspoken conflict between what is best for us, and what is best for them. These misleading figures reflect the responses of a propagandized and programmed public, spoon-fed from birth that it is acceptable and ‘normal’ to see these animals confined in a zoo or aquarium. We have been pre-programmed to believe that it is natural to seek entertainment and an escape to a place where these animals are accessible and willing to interact with us, and where we have been told they are happy, content, and even better off than if they were in the wild. We are so accustomed to these messages generated by SeaWorld and other marine parks’ public relations machines that our perceptions and beliefs have been shaped without our active participation. The seduction even greets us at the airport baggage claim of many major tourist destinations through attractive advertisements for captive facilities where you can swim with the dolphins. Through no fault of its own, the public has been denied the truth and has been swayed by the alluring messages of a multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise capitalizing on our love for these animals.
My four plus decades of life have provided me an opportunity to not only walk the varied paths of a dolphin lover and advocate, but to encounter many others along the way that have shared stories about their affinity for these animals, their feelings about captivity, and the rationalized choices that they make for themselves and their families. Growing up, I was lured and drawn in, like many, by the opportunity of SeaWorld, a logical destination for many families in the United States. It was here that I met my first dolphins ‘in the flesh’ at the petting pool at SeaWorld California when I was just eight years old. I left there wanting to be a trainer, believing this would be the best way to get close to these animals. But the catch is that I loved these animals before I ever set foot in SeaWorld. Through a lifetime of encountering these animals in the wild, education and an inborn passion to seek out what is best for these animals, I quickly abandoned my support of what I now see as selfish and indulgent entertainment. Now, I work to shut down those very same pools where I first encountered dolphins in person. Is this a natural progression for most people who encounter whales and dolphins in captivity? If people are given the truth about captivity, will they make the right choice–a choice in the best interest of dolphins?
Although I have come to know the backstory of captivity over time and work to expose and share it, the truth is that I was always conflicted. Long before I witnessed the drive hunts in Taiji, exposed the conditions at the dolphin petting pools, or reeled with the news of Alexis Martinez and Dawn Brancheau’s deaths, I knew there was something not quite right about SeaWorld and the stories they, and other captive facilities, told. With new truths about captivity surfacing daily, I am not the only one that feels this way. Truths of sordid dealings, brutal captures, and the incredibly deprived lives of the perpetually medicated and stressed animals are starting to sink in. However, it is the demand of the ticket counter that has facilities laboring to stock their pools and continue the revolving door of death.
After trainers Dawn Brancheau and Alexis Martinez’s deaths, and a quick succession of orca deaths in several SeaWorld facilities, a congressional hearing investigated the educational value of captivity. At that hearing, then-representative Carol Shea-Porter indicated she needed help and more information to make sense of her personal conflict between what captive facilities claim to offer, and her sense of discomfort in seeing whales and dolphins in captivity. Former SeaWorld trainers have also stepped forward with their clarion call to expose the truths behind captivity and reveal their change of heart. And I think that if you search the hearts of most people, you will find a conflict between a self-interested desire to be close to these animals and the discomfort in witnessing these magnificent creatures torn from the wild ocean for our entertainment.
A few facilities are already turning away from traditional whale and dolphins shows, and questioning the sourcing of these animals from the wild. We applaud their movement in a positive direction, and encourage them to continue to phase out their collection of captive whales and dolphins.
It is time to get honest about captivity, and what motivates us. I believe those who attend these marine parks, spending almost any amount of money to flock to SeaWorld on family vacations, do so because they love these animals and because they do not know any other story. In other words, the public goes to marine parks because they love these animals; they do not love these animals because of marine parks. They go because they believe in what they have been told. The public does not know the story behind the individual lives in those barren and shallow aquamarine pools, and more importantly, many may not want to. But once you do know the story, it is hard to turn back, and to see these shows for other than what they really are. You don’t have to dig very deep, I promise. As modern day circuses have fallen out of favor, so too shall marine parks that rely upon the confinement of whales and dolphins for their profits. But there is another story, and there will be many more that will continue to reveal the real truth and face of captivity—a truth that will help to reconcile that personal discomfort and conflict that so many have shared with me when they speak of captivity.
It comes down to one simple choice to set you, and eventually the dolphins, free: Don’t buy a ticket. We go to these parks like SeaWorld because we love the animals, but it is the very same reason why we shouldn’t. It is time that we embrace the truth, and the conflict, and question our culture of captivity. And with time, I believe those public opinion polls will reflect a different set of beliefs–one that finds the imprisonment of beings so very much like our own an abhorrent and archaic trend of the past.
It really is a very simple step to resolve the conflict between our self-interested love for dolphins, and the love and appreciation that is in their best interest. It truly isn’t counterculture or heretical to question SeaWorld, or the ‘state of the art’ Georgia Aquarium, or any of the other captive facilities that thrive on tourist dollars, however sacrilegious it might seem for those of us that have grown up with it.