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Save the dolphin: Let it go free!


IN THE early days of our Cousteau explorations, guided more by curiosity than insight, we captured dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea for display and study at the oceanographic museum in Monte Carlo. We were fascinated by these quick, intelligent creatures, frequent fellow travelers riding the bow-waves of our expeditions.

I was in high school at the time, and I remember rushing home in the afternoons to jump into the tank with one particular dolphin that I had befriended. At one point several weeks after the dolphin's capture, I began to suspect that something was going wrong. The animal had grown listless. Then one night it rammed its body headfirst into the wall of the pen, committing suicide.

I sensed even then that these animals must have a level of sensitivity that is incomprehensible to us. Looking back, it is easy to see how our ignorance of their world could lead to tragedy. Knowing nothing of diseases they might contract from us, we held them in our arms as we accustomed them to smaller and smaller enclosures. Knowing nothing of their social nature, we enclosed them singly in small pens. Knowing nothing of their sensitivity to sound, we assumed they would readily adapt to close, walled quarters.

At that time, we knew no better. Today, after more than three decades of experience with marine mammals in captivity, we do know better. Yet we continue to catch them, confine them and display them for profit. It is time to end this practice, an obsolete institution that harms an advanced mammal and calls our own humanity into question.

It is easy to follow the premise that contact with marine mammals is educational. Observation helps us understand and respect the animals, and it engenders the will to protect them in the wild. Moreover, the study of dolphins in captivity has yielded data on their brain size, communication skills and reproductive biology.

But in a larger sense, everything that we have learned from our involvement with captive marine mammals serves to buttress the principal conclusion that the injury suffered by the animals far outweighs any benefits resulting from their confinement.

Today's level of awareness forces us to ask whether captivity serves the interests of science, or vice versa.

The ideals of education do not abide easily in the culture of marine entertainment. Uneasy facts of life must always be subsumed in cheery show-biz gloss. In its training manuals, for ,, instance, Orlando's Sea World instructs its tour guides to refer to captures as "acquisitions," captivity as a "controlled environment" and tricks as "behavior."

If marine parks were truly educational, they would not need to rely on circumlocution to make their practices palatable to the public. When hotels and restaurants can obtain permits to display dolphins, education and science become mere distortions designed to make us feel comfortable with what are actually lucrative commercial ventures -- circuses of the sea.

To really understand dolphins, one must study them on their own terms. For them, the sea is a realm whose vast spaces are defined acoustically. Cetaceans communicate over hundreds of miles, making theirs a truly global society. Surrounded by this universal conductor of communication, marine mammals develop unusually strong bonds to one another. Individuals depend heavily on their position within the group, or "pod," for their own identity.

Dolphins in tanks are bombarded by a garble of their own vocalizations, which may in fact be acutely painful. Because these are sounds of communication as well as navigation, their world becomes a maze of meaningless reverberations. Their entire social structure, so crucial for their well-being, is shattered. A host of aberrant behaviors emerges. Some, like the orcas that killed one of the trainers at Sea World in 1991, become aggressive. Others, like my boyhood friend, mutilate or kill themselves.

The average life span of a dolphin in the wild is 45 years, yet half of all captured dolphins die within their first two years of captivity. Once in captivity, dolphins live an average of only five years. Every seven years, half of all dolphins in captivity die. Capture shock, pneumonia, enteritis and chlorine poisoning are just a few of the ills they face.

High mortality rates published by the National Marine Fisheries Service in its annual Marine Mammal Inventory Reports are strikingly consistent from park to park. By the end of 1992, American parks had posted a dismal record: Sea World -- 101 dolphins dead, 69 alive; Gulfarium -- 19 dead, six alive; Walt Disney World -- four dead, two alive. In the reckoning of the captive dolphin industry, these are not considered extraordinary failures, but are accepted as routine operating expenses.

Thankfully, there are signs that our relationship with marine mammals, and dolphins in particular, is changing. Efforts to reintroduce captive dolphins to the wild are proving successful. In Europe, the popularity of marine parks is waning, making the capture of dolphins financially unattractive. Only in Japan, Thailand and Indonesia is this sector growing, largely due to the lack of government scrutiny.

Even in the United States, where marine parks are thriving, popular pressure is mounting to bring an end to the captive dolphin industry.

Last year, South Carolina outlawed the display of wild-caught or captive-bred marine mammals and required that the attempt be made to rehabilitate and release stranded animals within a reasonable time. Other states, counties and municipalities are taking similar action.

The display of marine mammals for commercial gain does not represent the values we should be passing on to future generations. For there is a deeper ethical issue involved. By what right do we presume to deprive these creatures of their freedom and starve them into performing trivial feats for our diversion? We are not gods with a self-bestowed mandate to treat other species as exploitable resources. Rather, we owe these magnificent fellow travelers the right of way in their own domain.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, writes a syndicated column.

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