Swimming with dolphins

To swim with dolphins or not to swim with dolphins — that is the question.

I’ve recently returned from Jamaica, where I took my family to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios. Since then, I happened to catch the documentary “The Cove” which is about the dolphin slaughter in Japan each September. The movie links these dolphin experiences in the Caribbean with these slaughters, and so I am left thinking about what is “right” regarding animals in captivity.

I’m going to try and focus on dolphins and dogs, because of a few good similarities, and a pleasant alliteration, but I can’t promise that I won’t ‘stray’ from my ‘porpoise.’

I grew up watching re-runs of Flipper. I loved that dolphin (even though I was clueless that it was several dolphins playing the one role). Flipper was super smart and helped humans out of many a difficult situation. She was like a very slippery and wet Lassie.

Similarly, it was easy to love Lassie. As a child it’s nice to believe that someone… anyone… understands you and will have your back in a jam. It’s even better if the character in question is an adorable animal — like a dolphin or a dog that seems to love you unconditionally.

I grew up mesmerized by dolphins. I collected carved dolphins from my trips abroad and I sought out travel destinations where I might see them. It wasn’t until I was 39 that I decided to fulfill a childhood dream of mine and pay to swim with dolphins.

It was a wonderful experience. The dolphins seemed so well loved and treated by their trainers, and of course I’m projecting here, but they seemed to be having fun with us in the water. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the dolphins’ grace, beauty, athleticism and apparent intelligence.

On the other hand, there are petitions circulating on Facebook right now to ban a new dolphinarium in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The petitions and the documentary “The Cove” have proponents alleging that it is cruel to keep dolphins in captivity; that dolphins need more room to live properly, and otherwise they will be depressed.

One petition also said that not being able to catch their own dinner and instead being fed dead fish was wrong. One person interviewed in the documentary goes so far as to say that dolphins can (and have) committed suicide due to adverse conditions in captivity.

The dolphins I saw seemed pretty content and certainly not depressed (not like the tigers and bears I’ve seen in some zoos). It may be as simple as the fact that all zoos and dolphinariums are not created equal. The sizes and cleanliness of animal enclosures seems quite variable, as can be the care the animals receive. Case in point, after a visit to a zoo in Vietnam, I stopped going to zoos for almost a decade because the animals had a glazed, resigned look in their eyes that called out: “Just kill me now…please.”

I didn’t get that same feeling at my two Caribbean dolphinariums. These dolphins seemed quite pleased to be fed ‘dead’ fish by their trainers and they seemed very playful with us.

True enough, dolphins in the wild like playing in the wake of cruise ships and dive boats. They like surfing waves and swimming long stretches in the open ocean, but they also seem genuinely curious about humans.

And this brings me back to dogs.

Don’t dogs like to run in open spaces? Are they depressed being penned up in apartment buildings all day, all alone? (Even dolphins aren’t kept alone in dolphinariums). Is dry Lassie any different than wet Lassie? Where are the anti-dogs-as-pets-petitions?

I don’t want dolphins to suffer because there are those of us that want the chance to be close to them, and I’m not sure that they are suffering. Even for the neigh-sayer, these dolphinariums can be seen as a way to enlist more people to the dolphin conservation cause, but the petitions don’t mention that.

Why don’t we start with eliminating the obvious cruelty to our furry or slimy friends at the hands of ruthless or incompetent handlers, breeders, and/or trainers?

I’ll sign the petition against the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, but I am not ready to condemn a new dolphinarium without a lot more information.

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