Shortly after a worldwide campaign successfully got SeaWorld to stop breeding orca whales in captivity, a new animal-rights effort aimed at protecting marine animals seems to be picking up steam here in Arizona.
As of publication time, more than 92,000 people across the country had signed a petition demanding the Mexican company Dolphinaris cancel its plans to build a “swim-with-the-dolphins” entertainment center on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community reservation near Scottsdale.
The proposed SWTD dolphinarium is to be near the new OdySea Aquarium opening later this summer, though the two facilities have no affiliation and are owned by separate companies.
Dolphinaris did not return a request for comment, but according to journalist David Kirby, who authored an article about the proposed dolphinarium on Takepart.com, “The facility will house eight dolphins in a million-gallon tank and ... visitors will be able to get into the water with the animals.”
Dolphinaris operates similar SWTD entertainment centers throughout Mexico, but the Scottsdale entertainment center will be its first location in the United States – unless environmental and animal-rights activists get their way.
Since the 2013 release of Blackfish, a documentary about the dangers and ethics of SeaWorld’s captive orca program, public awareness about the risky practice of keeping large marine animals like dolphins and whales in captivity has increased substantially.
At the heart of Blackfish is an orca named Tilikum that is believed to have purposely killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, after years in captivity drove him to psychosis; according to the movie, Tilikum’s behavior is not an isolated incident.
SeaWorld originally defended its orca program as safe, both for the whales and their trainers, but in March, after years of big profit losses, the company announced it would phase out its orca breeding program and live orca shows.
Perhaps inspired by Blackfish, Laurice Dee, an Arizona resident, began an online petition earlier this month to stop Dolphinaris from building the facility in Scottsdale.
“Keeping dolphins captive in Arizona is absolutely not acceptable,” she writes in her petition.
Dee goes on to cite a variety environmental and health concerns about keeping dolphins in tanks in the Arizona desert – temperature, blowing dust, intense UV radiation, and local pollution from nearby Highway 101 – and points to studies showing the dangers of captivity in general.
“In a captive environment,” she writes, “dolphins swim in endless circles, [get] fed dead, medicated fish, and suffer from stress-induced physical, psychological, and physiological problems…Dolphins used for such programs are being subjected to abuse through heavy exploitation for human entertainment.”
As it turns out, Dee is far from alone in her thinking. An 82-page Humane Society report about marine animals in captivity notes that increasingly, “Animal-protection groups and a growing number of scientists [say] the lives of captive marine mammals are impoverished, people do not receive an accurate picture of a species from captive representatives, and the trade in live marine mammals negatively impacts populations and habitats.”
And it’s not just animal-rights organizations that feel this way. Joan Gonzalvo, a prominent marine scientist who focuses his research on dolphins, published a widely read paper last summer that made a strong case against captivity:
“We must recognize dolphin complexity and sentience and protect their physical, physiological, and behavioral needs. To hold dolphins in captivity is contrary to even the most basic elements of compassion and humanity and as such is to be rejected. Therefore, we should consider [it] unacceptable for cetaceans to be held in captivity for the purpose of public display,” he writes.
The animal-welfare news site, The Dodo, also recently published a scathing report about the “dark underbelly” of SWTD programs: "Dolphins are beautiful and amazing creatures in their natural habitat …but stick them in a cage, and you watch them change,” a dolphin trainer is quoted as saying.
“Removing any animals from their natural habitat simply for amusement and profit is cruel,” Phil Robbins, who signed Dee’s petition, writes.
“Dolphins are highly intelligent creatures who want and need to live in complex social groups. In captivity, they will usually have been separated from their families, often in cruel hunts, and some when they are very young. The mental, emotional, and physical stress that a captive whale or dolphin suffers can weaken [the] immune system and make them prone to disease,” writes Scottsdale resident Troy Gersema.
“Plus the people wanting this are money-hungry assholes!” he adds.
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Neither company returned requests for comment.