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Amazon river dolphins. Image: Fernando Trujillo/Fundacion Omacha

Amazon tragedy as endangered river dolphins die in hot water

Ali Wood Ali is WDC's education projects coordinator. She is the editor of Splash! and KIDZONE,...
Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin © Mike Bossley/WDC

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Katrin Matthes Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany...
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Hayley Flanagan Hayley is WDC's engagement officer, specialising in creating brilliant content for our website...
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Luke McMillan Luke is WDC's Head of hunting and captivity. Now that the 2023 whaling season...

The Mixed Messages of Captivity

On November 21st , an unsuspecting 8-year old girl, Jillian Thomas, was bitten by a dolphin at the petting and feeding pool at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. This comes as no surprise to WDC who published a report on the injuries and other risks to both humans and dolphins that occur at dolphin petting pools that primarily exist at SeaWorld parks in the US, and based in nearly 100 hours of undercover investigation at these pools.  We have been monitoring these pools since the mid-1990s, and have revealed not only a disturbing frequency of bites and aggression by dolphins in these pools towards the public, but also the disturbing treatment of dolphins at the hands of patrons at these parks. This is, of course, not the first incident at this and other SeaWorld parks:  it is just that it happened to be captured on video and for the entire world to see.

As a result of these investigations, WDC launched a campaign, and alongside HSUS, released its report in 2003. Our studies have recorded and assessed human and dolphin behaviors which present direct or indirect risks to the health and welfare of visitors or dolphins, including biting and butting/bumping, and the feeding of foreign objects and contaminated food items. Other factors that were looked at include gull harassment at these pools, feeding regimes, access to refuge areas, overcrowding, and potential for bi-directional disease transmission.  The conclusion of this report is as relevant now, as it was then: the physical interaction between humans and dolphins may pose serious risks to the health and welfare of both parties. Abrupt movements by, and aggressive competition between, dolphins can result in physical injury to visitors. Many of the dolphins in these pools also bear wounds.

The words of this young girl in response to her injury also reveal the other side of this issue, and that is the welfare of the dolphins involved in this program. She stated that I was afraid that the dolphin might get sick because of the paper carton.” WDC’s investigations reveal that up to 17 dolphins, including calves can be in the petting pools at any one time. Too many dolphins in an overcrowded pool are subjected to not only stress, but the potential to be fed foreign objects or contaminated food items from the public, where inadequate supervision not only may lead to injuries, such as the bite experienced by Jillian Thomas, but the ingestion of objects that could prove fatal to the dolphins if undetected. There is more to be concerned about for these dolphins than just the paper fish carton. The government-maintained Marine Mammal Inventory (MMIR) report reveals that the ingestion of foreign objects is a common cause of death in captive marine mammals.

Through the life of our campaign, and the long history of meetings with the relevant regulatory agencies, the only change that has occurred at these pools is a restriction of access to the dolphins around a portion of the perimeter of the pool, and signage at the pools that indicates “feeding dolphins in the wild is illegal.”

What does feeding dolphins in the wild have to do with an 8–year old girl being bitten at SeaWorld in Orlando? For one, feeding dolphins in the wild is illegal. However, perhaps less obvious is the connection between these interactions in public display facilities, and problems for wild dolphins. I suggest that this mixed messaging within the context of interactive programs not only confuses the public, but is responsible for significant conservation issues in the wild: you can feed dolphins or swim with them here, but don’t feed them or swim with them in the wild. It is this ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality that is leading to a real regulatory nightmare in the wild.

Dolphins are being harassed and fed, especially around the coastline of Florida and throughout the Gulf, and the conflicts between humans and dolphins are intensifying. Individuals in Louisiana who are eager to interact with a solitary sociable male dolphin have been bitten and sent to the hospital. Swimmers in the hot zone of Panama City, Florida, known as a mecca for swimming and feeding wild dolphins, have had threatening encounters with aggressive dolphins that have pushed them underwater and away from the safety of their boats.  Interestingly enough, it is in these areas where dolphins have been injured by human interaction and directed vandalism, and where individuals have been convicted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for crimes against dolphins, including shooting and throwing pipe bombs at dolphins.

In fact, interactions with wild dolphins have become so prevalent, and the consequences so serious, that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) launched a public campaign in the late 1990s to deter feeding, touching and swimming with dolphins in the wild. This ‘Protect Dolphins Campaign’ deals directly with human-dolphin interactions and harassment in the wild, and seeks to educate the public about the risks to dolphins and the public in interacting with dolphins, pointing to the grave consequences that can result. Provisioning (feeding) dolphins modifies their natural behaviors and leaves them at increased risk for collision with boat propellers, vandals, recreational and commercial fishing operations, and may prevent them from foraging on their own. Similarly, swim-with activities can harass and harm wild dolphins.

As people are participating in more encounters with captive dolphins, there is an unmistakable trend of people seeking out close encounters with free-ranging dolphins in the wild. We believe this trend is increasingly harmful to wild dolphin populations, as evidenced in Hawaii with the spinner dolphins, in southeastern US with bottlenose dolphins. Swim-with activities can target vulnerable populations and disrupt normal behavior.  For instance, in Hawaii, spinner dolphins are targeted by swimmers and swim-tours in their resting bays during the day (they feed at night). Recent research in this area has revealed that some populations are being displaced, and population level impacts are becoming evident, altering behaviors and distribution of these populations in the longer term.

The seriousness of feeding wild dolphins is also the focus of another NMFS public-facing campaign developed in collaboration with, ironically, public display facilities. WDC declined to be a part of this collaborative initiative because of our very concerns about the connections between these activities at public display facilities and what is occurring in the wild.

The ‘Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins,’ campaign which includes a very clever and graphically-appealing Public Service Announcement and accompanying website makes it very clear that feeding dolphins in the wild is not only illegal, but pretty much a death sentence for the dolphins that subsequently become habituated to human hand-outs and find themselves at risk of boat propeller injuries, or worse, the vandalism of irritated fishermen or recreationalists. In certain areas, dolphins may frequent angling areas, follow commercial fishing boats looking for an easy catch, and become the target of a public eager for close interaction in coastal areas. Media reports about dolphins being fatally targeted in the Gulf region, some with guns, another with a screwdriver, have intensified in the media since last June and continue to today. The poster child for this campaign was Beggar, an adult male bottlenose dolphin that was infamous for his begging behavior around boats, and that eventually led to his demise.Beggar was found dead in October, and was likely the most observed wild dolphin in the world. Focused observation of his activities over 100 hours and conducted in 2011 identified 3,600 interactions between Beggar and humans (up to 70 per hour) and 1689 attempts to feed him 520 different food items, from shrimp to hot dogs and beer. In addition, during just those observation hours, researchers logged 121 attempts to touch him, resulting in nine bites to people. Beggar reportedly spent much of his time a short distance from shore, where he was frequently approached by boaters. As a result, Beggar stopped foraging on his own and stopped socializing with other dolphins.

The connection is obvious to us. It is time for NMFS and SeaWorld to acknowledge the real link between the close interaction between dolphins and the public at these facilities, and the problems of managing these same activities in the wild. Opportunities for physical contact with dolphins, including touching, feeding and swimming with both wild and captive animals are increasing in range and intensity. From our perspective, these programs stimulate the public’s demands to get closer and closer to these unique animals, increasing the risk for injury to both the public and dolphins, both in the wild and in captivity. By promoting and reinforcing the acceptability of feeding and touching dolphins, captive feeding programs will continue to encourage the public to repeat their experiences with these animals in the wild.

Although the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) stopped requiring the reporting of injuries in 1999 with the suspension of regulations governing interaction programs in public display facilities, these suspended regulations, which were opened for public input in 2002, are due to be released as newly proposed and revised regulations in the spring of 2013.  WDC has been critical of these regulations, providing our recommendations for their improvement over 10 years ago, requiring the specific redress of petting pools within those guidelines, or their closure. However, we have been informed by APHIS that dolphin petting pools are no different than any other interactive program and pose no greater risk, and will therefore not be specifically addressed in the proposed regulations.

And this brings us back to the ‘Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins’ Campaign. NMFS is placed in an untenable and difficult position, where it works in partnership with public display facilities, that through lip service appear ‘supportive’ of the agency’s role in cracking down on illegal activities that harm and harass dolphins in the wild, but that actually perpetuate and propagate the very activities that NMFS must regulate in the wild, such as feeding, swimming and petting activities, at their facilities. And we are not the only ones that see this connection. A detailed survey of public display facilities conducted in 1989 reveals that many zoos and aquaria have eliminated their petting and feeding programs, citing the unacceptable risks associated with such attractions. In addition, individuals from within the public display community itself have questioned whether they are part of the problem in promoting these activities that are illegal and detrimental to dolphins in the wild. It is time to acknowledge the risks that captive dolphin interaction programs pose to humans and dolphins, both in captivity and in the wild. In the clear absence of a willingness to specifically regulate and acknowledge the risks associated with petting pools, and continuing injuries at these attractions, WDC continues our call for their immediate closure.