Baltimore's National Aquarium announced plans Tuesday morning to move its colony of dolphins from its amphitheater pool to the nation's first oceanside dolphin sanctuary.
The decision comes after years of protests by animal activists and others who consider it inhumane to keep such large, intelligent animals as performers in captivity.
The aquarium said it has spent five years weighing options for the animals, which scientists believe display an advanced intellect compared with other species and can't fully thrive outside their natural habitats, where they form social groups and can swim great distances.
The 35-year-old Inner Harbor attraction, which opened the Pier 4 Marine Mammal Pavilion 25 year ago, is exploring seaside sites in Florida and the Caribbean to create a new home for its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins by 2020. Aquarium officials envision a first-of-its-kind protected, seaside habitat where the dolphins still would be cared for by humans.
"We now know more about dolphins and their care, and we believe that the National Aquarium is uniquely positioned to use that knowledge to implement positive change," John Racanelli, the aquarium's CEO, said in the announcement.
The aquarium entered the debate over the merits of keeping animals in captivity when it said two years ago it was considering eliminating the popular Dolphin Discovery amphitheater exhibit and moving the eight mammals to a sanctuary.
At the time, some visitors were surprised to learn of a potential move for animals they had grown up watching and brought their children to see. The aquarium stopped offering a stunt-filled dolphin show about four years ago and instead allowed visitors to observe the animals in the pool and interacting with trainers.
The aquarium is one of Baltimore's biggest tourist attractions and draws 1.3 million visitors a year.
The facility launched a comprehensive planning effort in 2013 dubbed BLUEprint aiming to balance audience expectations with a conservation organization's responsibility to rescue, protect and care for aquatic life. The aquarium's staff and board weighed whether to rebuild the existing marine mammal pavilion in a more naturalistic style or move the dolphins to another facility.
In an opinion piece appearing Tuesday in The Baltimore Sun, Racanelli said the decision is in the best interest of the dolphins as well as of an institution that has evolved from a sea life attraction to aquatic conservation group. The nonprofit group did not announce the sanctuary's expected cost but said it is seeking philanthropic investments to fund the project.
"We would be obviously very supportive of a decision that would result in the dolphins being moved to a sanctuary," said Emily Hovermale, Maryland state director of the Humane Society of the U.S. "We've partnered on legislation with the aquarium in the past and found them to be a great advocate for animal welfare. This is a positive step forward."
Public opposition to keeping dolphins and whales in captivity has grown, as more attention has been focused on the issue. Various dolphin movies and TV shows and the 1993 move "Free Willy" about an orca trapped at a theme park helped spark public sympathy. Later documentaries, including "The Cove" about the killing of dolphins in Japan and "Blackfish" about orcas in captivity after the killing of a Sea World trainer in 2010, stoked the interest.
Just last month, protesters gathered outside the National Aquarium for the international Empty the Tanks Worldwide event, in which protests were planned at 61 locations in 22 countries. Protesters held signs that said "Captivity kills" and "Empty the tanks."
Sea World recently announced plans to stop breeding orcas and to make changes to allow animals to be kept in more natural environment. And Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus sent its last performing elephants into retirement in May.
"That needs to continue," Hovermale, said. "There shouldn't be things like entertainment shows where animals are forced to perform unnatural acts — things they wouldn't do in their natural environments. Continuous improvement in that area is definitely essential."
Though progress is being made, Hovermale said, abusive practices continue, such as the smaller circuses that force elephants to perform on cue.
Relocating the dolphins to a sanctuary would be a groundbreaking step, said Heather Rally, a veterinarian for the PETA Foundation, who has been following the aquarium's years of study.
"We know we cannot keep these animals happy and healthy in captivity," Rally said.
Bottlenose dolphins are "highly intelligent," she said, and can suffer psychological damage and develop abnormal, repetitive behaviors when inhibited by confined spaces. That can lead to heightened aggression and bullying.
"We just know at this point in our evolution we cannot keep them happy and healthy in concrete tanks," Rally said. "We need to find another solution. ... Taking an animal out of its natural habitat and putting it in an unnatural enclosure where it's unhealthy and unhappy and putting it on display for children is sending negative messages for children."
While the aquarium said it has not identified a site for the sanctuary, it is looking to build an outdoor, seawater facility in a tropical year-round climate, close to where dolphins exist in the wild. The ideal site would be much larger than the current home, with stimuli such as marine plants and fish. A site selection team will evaluate locations based on those criteria and the potential for providing lifetime customized care for each dolphin.
Zoos and aquatic facilities have evolved over the years to include environments that more closely resemble natural habitats but remain constrained by available space.
Attitudes about the treatment of animals have been evolving as well, Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and author, said in the aquarium's announcement.
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"The idea of providing sanctuaries for elephants, chimpanzees, big cats — and now dolphins — is a sign of a maturing ethic of caring unthinkable in past millenia, centuries and even decades," Earle said.
While many animals and fish thrive in zoos or aquatic centers, large, social animals such as elephants and dolphins run into trouble in confined areas, said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
"They can't form big social groups," Grandin said. "Their life is all about social relationships — they form lifelong social bonds. Lots of other animals are just fine. A lot of small animals do fine in zoos. Aquarium fish are just fine."
But she believes a balance needs to be struck between animal welfare and providing the public, especially children, with a real connection to animals.
To encourage education about and interest in animals, "I think people actually need to see animals to make a connection," Grandin said. "We have to figure out a way so that people can still see these animals. ... I don't think video alone totally does it."
Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.