Group urges National Aquarium to free dolphins

When she was a girl, Jackie Burson said, she fell under the spell of dolphins while watching them on TV. She visited aquariums and theme parks to see them perform incredible tricks.

"I used to love dolphin shows, too," she hollered through a bullhorn at the Inner Harbor on Saturday. "They're fun. The dolphins like it. Everybody wins, right? Wrong! Keeping [dolphins] in captivity is exactly the same as keeping them in prison."


Burson, of Waldorf, was one of about 50 people who gathered near the National Aquarium to hold up signs, hand out leaflets and protest the attraction's continued ownership of eight bottlenose dolphins — and to urge the aquarium's management to release them to live in an oceanside sanctuary.

"Dolphins in captivity live a short and miserable life," said Kevin Starbard, a Philadelphia activist who organized the event. "They deserve a chance to live normally. We're calling on the [National] Aquarium to set an example for the industry and do the right thing."


The aquarium, in fact, did announce earlier this month that it was considering whether to keep the dolphins on exhibit as part of a broader assessment of the institution and its role.

"The health and well-being of our animals is our continued priority," the aquarium said in a statement Saturday. "Even as we explore possible environmental changes for our dolphin colony, we take great pride in the exemplary care they receive at the National Aquarium. Clearly this issue is deeply personal for many people, yet our eventual decision … will be based on the results of a thorough inquiry into the science and research of this nuanced topic and the feasibility of a multitude of options."

Called into being through an Internet campaign, the demonstration was one of more than 50 held at aquatic parks and attractions around the world Saturday as part of a movement called Empty the Tanks.

Now two years old, the movement aims to persuade the public to stop supporting attractions that keep marine mammals in captive environments, especially those in which the animals perform.

Some protesters remembered loving traditional circus-style dolphin shows, in which handlers train dolphins to flap their fins or leap in the air.

"As a kid, you enjoy it, but you don't necessarily think about where the dolphins come from and how they got there, or how they live when the shows aren't happening," said Mike Weisensee, who drove down from Lancaster, Pa., to take part in the demonstration.

Burson, Weisensee and others said their love for the animals led them to learn more — and that process included seeing films like "The Cove," a 2009 documentary that exposed the brutality of dolphin hunting in Japan; and "Blackfish," a 2013 film about the treatment of orcas — also known as killer whales — in captivity.

The productions had a profound impact on many of the demonstrators, including Jessica Twigg of Baltimore and her son, Landon Reidnauer, 8.


They said they ended their family membership to the aquarium in 2011 after watching "The Cove" and doing their own research on the impact of captivity on dolphins.

The aquarium, Twigg said, periodically sends letters trying to get the family to rejoin. "I write back and say, 'Retire the dolphins to a sea pen and we'll come back,'" Twigg said.

Massed along a sidewalk, protesters held signs reading "Life in a Concrete Box is No Life" and "Captivity Kills," and chanted "No Thanks! Empty the Tanks!"

Most, though, expressed empathy for the aquarium, which said it will be studying what to do with the dolphins, now retired after CEO John Racanelli ended the popular performance shows two years ago.

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Among the possibilities is doing exactly what the protesters want: moving the animals to a seaside pen at some yet-undetermined site.

"Mr. Racanelli is a conservationist, and we know his heart is in the right place. We hope [this protest] will encourage him to take that next step," said Heather Morris of Germantown.


Not everyone was in sync with the protesters. One passer-by cursed the group, and Inner Harbor resident Rosalind Heid handed out fliers in support of the aquarium.

"Any suggestion to exile [the dolphins] to some ocean pen … is like sending a beloved family dog to the animal shelter," her statement read.

Starbard disagreed. If the aquarium did allow the move to a sanctuary, he said, it would be a first for the industry, and the move could encourage others to follow.

"If everything goes well, we won't have to be here again next year," he said.