Almost half of all adults across Arizona oppose captive Swim-With-The-Dolphin (SWTD) entertainment centers like Dolphinaris, the facility that opened last month near Scottsdale, a new poll from Lake Research Partners finds.
According to the poll, 49 percent of Arizonans say they oppose such facilities, and 31 percent say they strongly oppose them. By contrast, 32 percent of adults support SWTD facilities, and 19 percent are undecided.
The findings held across gender lines, as 55 percent of women and 42 percent of men say they oppose these facilities, while 27 percent of women and 27 percent of men say they support them. And according to the poll, age was also not a significant factor – approximately half of respondents, whether over or under age 55, reported opposition.
"A majority of Arizonans do not support it, and the number of people who strongly oppose it are higher than the number who support," says Stephanie Nichols-Young, president of the Animal Defense League of Arizona, one of the groups that commissioned the poll. She's not surprised by the findings, she adds, because as far as she can tell, the public is really turning against holding marine animals captive for entertainment purposes.
"Dolphins are incredibly sophisticated animals. They should be out in the wild, not held in a pool that's too small for them," she says.
Ever since news about the SWTD facility being constructed near Scottsdale on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Reservation became public earlier this summer, there's been a strong outcry from those opposed to such places. Thousands of people have signed online petitions, and multiple protests have been held, including one on October 15, the day Dolphinaris officially opened to the public.
"No animals should be locked up for entertainment, especially in the desert," protester Marylou O'Keefe told New Times at a rally in September. "And people should not be swimming with dolphins. It's been scientifically proven that diseases can be transferred and that it stresses the animals out."
While those operating SWTD entertainment centers promise the dolphins are safe, healthy, and treated well, those opposed say just the opposite. They cite research and other news articles describing injuries incurred by both dolphins and humans, and claim that the animals are kept in small spaces that can lead to psychosis.
"The big issue for us is that the tanks are really small for bottlenose dolphins compared to the distances they would swim in the wild. Not allowing them to engage in natural behavior and thrive — it's not a good environment for them," Nichols-Young says.
She's also concerned about how this facility contributes to the global demand for captive dolphins. Even though the nine dolphins at Dolphinaris were born in captivity, she says, creating any demand for captive dolphins propagates the market and perpetuates events like the annual capture of wild dolphins in Taiji, Japan that was featured in the documentary The Cove.
She thinks that movies like The Cove and Blackfish have helped turn the public against captive marine entertainment centers, and was really shocked to learn that one was being built in Arizona.
"The Animal Defense League is an Arizona-based group that's been around since the '80s, and we've worked on a lot of issues, but I never thought we'd be working on marine animals in the Sonoran Desert," she says.
"We were really concerned about whether we wanted this in our state, and whether consumers want this. So that's why we did the poll, to see if we were in touch with the people."
According to the poll, the majority of people still oppose the facility even after being presented with arguments from both sides.
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(People were read the following statement: "Some people say dolphins should NOT be held in captivity for entertainment. The tanks are too small, dolphins are prone to injury and illness, and the public can get hurt, too. These programs are unethical and do not support education or conservation. [And] other people say marine parks where people can swim with dolphins are run by experienced animal trainers who take good care of dolphins, including providing expensive veterinary care. These parks also expose families to the wonders of sea life. Which side do you agree with most?")
"Balanced information, echoing what both sides have said about this pay-to-swim attraction, does not change the dynamics; adults in Arizona stand opposed to holding dolphins for these purposes," the pollsters write.
"I feel pretty optimistic. Obviously there's been a lot of opposition in the community, and I don't think [Dolphinaris'] opening numbers were very good. I don't think they're getting the types of numbers they were hoping to get," Nichols-Young says. "I just think the trend is that people are moving on from these types of facilities, and I think they're missing the boat by trying to open it."
**Editor's Note: a spokeswoman for Dolphinaris e-mailed New Times to say, "Dolphinaris Arizona has provided Dolphin Experiences for an average of 80 people per day since opening. There have been no safety issues whatsoever. In fact, the USDA states that dolphin interactive programs have been operating for over 20 years without any indications of health problems or incidents of aggression in the marine mammals."