Holding signs that said "Captivity kills" and "Empty the tanks," about two dozen protesters gathered outside the National Aquarium in Baltimore on Saturday, calling for the facility's dolphins to be released.
"The National Aquarium has eight captive dolphins," said Heather Morris, 30, of Gaithersburg. "Back in 2014, there was talk there might be a sea sanctuary that they could retire the dolphins into, but nothing else has been said or done about that."
The protest was part of an international event called Empty The Tanks Worldwide that planned protests at 61 locations across 22 countries. Passing out fliers to passers-by in downtown Baltimore, the local group said it hoped to raise awareness about the plight of whales and dolphins in captivity.
Activists allege such animals can suffer from a wide range of medical issues, often due to stress. In the wild, dolphins can live older than 50 years. In captivity, many dolphins die much earlier, they said.
"They are very intelligent, social creatures," Morris said. "It's in their DNA to want to hunt, be with their families and grow their families. Captivity does not provide them with quality of life."
Twenty-minute dolphin shows — filled with leaps and stunts — were once a top attraction at the National Aquarium. But the facility's leadership has struggled with what to do with the dolphins in recent years as public sentiment mounts against captivity. The documentary "Blackfish" helped draw attention to orcas in captivity after the killing of a Sea World trainer in 2010.
In 2012, the National Aquarium eliminated its high-flying dolphin show — where visitors were regularly splashed by the animals — in favor of a more relaxed exhibit in which customers observe dolphins in their amphitheater.
"You really can't make the dolphins do show after show after show," aquarium CEO John Racanelli said at the time. "It's stressful, and it's not appropriate."
Two years ago, Racanelli announced the organization was considering moving its dolphins to a sanctuary. Eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins live at the National Aquarium. The oldest, Nani, is in her mid-40s.
Kate Rowe, spokeswoman for the aquarium, said the organization is still deliberating about what to do.
"We are researching possible options for the future of our dolphin colony, and we know that the National Aquarium is not alone in asking these important questions in an evolving, global conversation around cetaceans in human care," Rowe said in a statement.
"We understand and respect that this issue is deeply personal for many people, and we ask for their patience," she said. "We remain committed to a thoughtful, deliberative approach informed by science, and we look forward to sharing our progress."
Protesters said they are concerned the aquarium is taking too long.
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"It seems like they're waiting for the dolphins to pass naturally," Morris said. "Don't say there's plans to build a sanctuary when there's actually not."
Empty the Tanks Worldwide was founded by activist Rachel Carbary over concern about the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Protests were planned for the United States, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, Dubai, Germany and Spain, organizers said.
"We know the level of awareness these animals have," Carbary said in a statement. "You cannot breed natural instincts out of an animal in a handful of generations. These are incredibly social, intelligent beings who are being exploited and used for economic gain — and nothing more."