Of Dolphins & Decency

Richard ("Ric") O'Barry first recognized in the 1960s for capturing and training the five dolphins that were used in the well-known TV series "Flipper". Ric made a radical transition from training dolphins in captivity to assertively combating the captivity industry soon after Kathy, one of the Flipper dolphins, died in his arms. Ric contends Kathy committed suicide. Today Ric is a Marine Mammal Specialist of Earth Island Institute and co-director of the movie 'The Cove', here he discusses the welfare of marine mammals in captivity:

When you consider that dolphins and other whales have been around on this planet for at least 50 million years, compared with much less than a single million years for us human beings, you have to wonder how we got control so quickly over them. They have larger brains than we have. They’re bigger and stronger, faster, sleeker and altogether more perfectly formed than we are. And yet, just as we have come to dominate 30 per cent of the world (that which is above water) in the short time we’ve been around, we could say that dolphins and other whales are the dominant species in the other 70 per cent, which is water.

The bottom line is that we’re both at the top in our separate worlds, cetaceans in their watery domain, we on land. When we scan the horizon for similarities, we have a moment of recognition because we’re actually very much alike. We’re both mammals, for instance, mammals of a high order for we’re both self-aware, and we’ve both adapted almost perfectly to the world we live in. As mammals, we both breathe air, mothers in both worlds suckle their young in loving family groups around which is woven a way of living that fosters social rules maintaining a balance like the golden mean of ancient Greece.

At least that’s true of dolphins and other whales.

Is this dolphin display educational?Is this dolphin display educational?

Where did we go wrong? What happened in our world to make so many of us rush with such abandon into the exploitation of our counterparts in the other 70 per cent of the world? Why do we capture these beautiful fellow creatures and make them objects of fun? And oddly enough the most fun we seem to have is capturing them, pinning them up and making them pull us through the water, one after the other. Why would anyone who understood what was actually going on enjoy this? How can we, who do understand what’s going on, tolerate it? And how can those who exploit dolphins and other whales do so without a ripple of conscience, as if they had a right to?

Most countries would not permit this abuse for the real reason they exist: money. Most countries have laws against cruelty to animals, laws that began early in the 19th century. But obviously these laws have a loophole because, despite all our efforts, displaying dolphins publicly for money is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Hunters of dolphins, suppliers and shippers, marketers, park construction workers, trainers – this list goes on and on and they all cash in. Some nations allow it because they’ve got bigger problems. Some nations see nothing wrong with it. Some allow it for the wrong reason: that it’s educational. They say that many people would never get to see a dolphin except for the dolphinaria. But what about all the people who will never see a snow leopard? A sabre-toothed tiger? Or the dodo bird? Taken even at face value, their argument is a fraud, because these dolphinaria are not educational, they’re anti-educational. They show not a dolphin in his own world but a trained dolphin, a dolphin trained to act like a clown, in our world.

It may be tempting to point out that we are not personally to blame for what is happening to dolphins and other whales. And that’s true. We don’t personally capture them and put them in what to them are tiny torture chambers, and we don’t withhold food till they perform silly little acrobatic tricks to our liking. We’re not to blame, not a single one of us, in the same way we’re not to blame for the world’s murders, arsons, kidnappings and so on. We’re not to blame because (1) we don’t personally do these things and (2) we’ve helped pass laws against them, laws with good stiff penalties that express our desire to make the world free from such abuse. We pass laws against murder, kidnapping and all the rest not because of some abstraction about society or the rule of law, but because we’re sick of it. We’ve had enough. Just like now we’re revolted by those who capture dolphins in the wild and imprison them for the rest of their lives.

If words alone, if logic, reason, facts and history were enough to destroy the dolphin industry that has warped our lives, they would be long gone now. We need more than words; we need laws to stop them. We know that it cannot be done overnight. It may take many years. We may even have to compromise a little. But now is the time to start eliminating this evil or it will never happen in our lifetime.