Some Dolphins and Whales are Stuck with Captivity Their Only Option – What to Do?

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11436647-large dolphin times picayune
Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the dolphin. (Times-Picayune)

Winter, the dolphin who was rescued and fitted with a prosthetic tail in the movie Dolphin Tale , is on many levels a poster child for captive life even if she had not lost her tail. Still nursing at two months old when found, she needed to be bottle fed and grew up in an artificial environment much like a captive born dolphin.  Even had she not lost her tail fluke she would not have been releaseable – she could not have navigated life in the wild because she would have lacked family ties, knowledge of how to hunt appropriate fish in a particular environment, or how to discern friends from foes (how do you teach a dolphin to avoid sharks?).
These factors are outlined in Ric O’Barry’s article  “Releasing Captive Dolphins“, where he explains that releasing captive born dolphins can succeed, but only on a case-by-case basis:

Many captive dolphins born in what we call ‘the wild’ are candidates for release. But not all of them. Some dolphins have received too many human imprints and have forgotten or lost the skills needed to survive in what was once their home. Habitat dictates behavior. Captivity has destroyed something vital in their lives, something that, were they human, we would call ‘spirit.’ For them, it is too late.

Clearwater Marine Aquariium photo.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium photo.

Winter – who was injured by human carelessness when she became entangled in a crab pot – has traded certain death for a life serving humans. She inspires people with disabilities, a reminder that life may not be what we would choose, but that it does go on.  The Clearwater aquarium shares this story, among others:

11-year-old Megan McKeon was born in Latvia, and now lives with her adoptive parents in California. At just 5 months old, Megan’s birth mother dropped a cigarette in her crib, badly burning the infant. Megan lost one leg to the burns and the other leg was severely injured. The hospital in Latvia took over her care and began to perform experimental surgeries and procedures on her. Megan endured 23 amputations to her leg. An intern at the hospital saw what was occurring, told a friend who was a journalist, and that journalist wrote an article about the need for Megan to find an adoptive home outside Latvia where she could get better medical care. Megan’s adoptive parents, Mark and Susan McKeon, were working in Latvia at the time and saw the article (Susan was a nurse at the U.S. Embassy and Mark was working as an attorney). They adopted Megan right away.
Until Megan read the story of Winter, she was not wearing her prosthetic leg regularly. She was so inspired by Winter’s story that she started wearing her leg several hours each day. Her practitioner fit her with the ‘Winter gel’ to help increase her comfort level since Megan has sensitive scar tissue, just like Winter does. Megan is an extremely active little girl. She’s a gymnast, water and snow skis, surfs, and is a motivational speaker. Megan is shown in the closing credits of Dolphin Tale.

But notice, this child did not need to get in the water with Winter, or even see the dolphin to become inspired, the story was enough. Requiring healthy, normal dolphins to serve our needs in questionable ‘dolphin assisted therapy’ practices, or entertain us as circus clowns is another matter – it destroys them:

Some years ago, for instance, I [Ric] had occasion to study a dolphin in Nassau, Bahamas, who had been in captivity for a long time and was now quite mad. They called him ‘Big Boy’ and he spent much of his time ramming his head against the wooden entrance to his sea pen. On one side of the wooden gate was the area where he was protected, admired and watched with fascination, sometimes by hundreds of people. He was fed all he wanted to eat and was clearly master of his world. On the other side was the sea, his natural home. And as I watched him banging his head against the gate one day, I wondered if it would be possible to re-adapt him to the wild again.
…Captivity had turned him into a mental cripple. If we could re-adapt him, I thought, we could re-adapt any dolphin. But the longer I watched, the more I realized that we were too late. He’d had too much of it. I don’t mean mistreatment. I never saw anybody deliberately mistreat Big Boy. In fact, I saw the reverse of that. What I saw was an excess of ‘love.’ Everybody wanted to be with him, to touch him and talk to him; in short, everybody wanted to ‘help’ this big old dolphin. But nobody knew how. And so, day after day, always smiling but full of rage, the big dolphin banged his head as if to get free again; a stressed out dolphin who was so uncooperative, unpredictable, suspicious and dangerous, a dolphin filled with so much hate that I knew I could never reach him.

Ric O'Barry campaigns worldwide against cetacean captivity.
Ric O’Barry campaigns worldwide against cetacean captivity.

There are good options for these dolphins, including housing them in sheltered lagoons. Ric’s article is highly recommended reading for more information, and be sure to tune into Radio Free Rescue Monday June 10th 2013 at 9pm Eastern time to hear an interview with neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence Dr. Lori Marino discuss captivity issues.

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