Holding colorful posters with messages like "No Dolphin Prison" and "Thanks, but No Tanks," at least 50 men, women, and children gathered at the four corners of a busy Scottsdale intersection Saturday evening to protest a swim-with-the-dolphins entertainment center under construction a few miles away on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Reservation.
The facility, the first of its kind in Arizona, is owned by the Mexican company Dolphinaris and should open sometime this month. Last week, 3TV reported that the first five bottlenose dolphins — three males and two females — were brought in from similar facilities in California. The center's four pools, which will hold about a million gallons of water, may house up to 12 dolphins.
Opponents of the center say housing dolphins in captivity is inhumane and dangerous.
As the sun sank lower on the horizon Saturday evening and cars passed through the intersection, many honking in solidarity, Courtney Vail and Patricia Cady, two local activists who helped found the group Dolphin Free AZ, held colorful signs and handed out literature about so-called dolphinariums.
Vail, who has worked with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (formerly the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society) for the past 17 years, says they're out there to raise awareness about the devastating trade in marine animals.
"Any new facility perpetuates the cruelty of the captive-dolphin industry," she says, launching into a discussion of facts and statistics about dolphins held in captivity: the health problems they encounter, the stress and depression they experience, and the global captures and trade involved with this industry.
Dolphins are wild animals, she says — they can't be domesticated and are unpredictable in their behaviors. "Even marine-mammal scientists are coming out against this."
Vail says she wouldn't be surprised if people got injured at this place, and brings up the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which outlined the dangers and ethical problems with captive orcas at SeaWorld. Many at the protest cited the film as the inspiration for their anti-captivity activism.
Blackfish tells the story of SeaWorld's star orca, Tilikum, who appears to have purposefully killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, after years of living in captivity drove him into a state of psychosis. After the movie came out, SeaWorld began a campaign to defended its captive-orca program, maintaining that it was safe for the whales and their trainers, but after years of public pressure — and huge revenue drops from public boycotts — the company announced earlier this year that it would begin phasing out its orca-breeding program and live orca shows.
Local protesters say they hope to create a similar public outcry about captive dolphins used for shows and swim-with-the-dolphins (SWTD) programs.
"They are highly intelligent mammals," says Betsy Churchill. "I just can't stand the thought of these animals being corralled."
"No animals should be locked up for entertainment, especially in the desert," adds another woman standing nearby, Marylou O'Keefe. "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."
Dolphins and whales held in captivity are particularly susceptible to respiratory infections, and many die every year from health complications. Of particular concern is the possibility that dolphins will get Valley fever, a fungal infection that sickens many humans and animals every year in the area.
But even putting the health risks to dolphins aside, Vail adds, people have been seriously injured during STWD experiences — dolphins have bitten and scratched people with their sharp teeth, pulled swimmers underwater, and even exhibited sexually aggressive behavior.
SWTD critics say that these sorts of injuries are often difficult to track because swimmers are required to sign lengthy waiver forms before getting in the pool.
"I just don't think people understand that they are wild animals. They're not domesticated, they've been tamed. Quite literally, they've been broken, just like a horse. They've broken these animals to bend to their will," says Russ Rector, a well-known dolphin activist based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Rector started one of the first SWTD programs in 1971 but closed it soon after when he realized how dangerous it was for the dolphins and the swimmers.
"The injuries were escalating," he says. "The only thing that runs these swim programs is money — another day, another dollar, another dolphin. It's just money, using dolphins to make money. I've done it, they all do it. It's all about money. Even the [dolphin] trainers don't get in the fucking water with them — they know better."
Dolphinaris could not be reached for comment for this story.
According to Vail, there are 400 to 500 captive bottlenose dolphins leased to dolphinarium centers throughout the United States, most of which are the product of artificial insemination and were born in captivity.
"But there are 200 dolphins taken every year from the wild in Japan," she says, making a reference to the popular documentary The Cove, which highlights the dark underside of the industry. "It's not an impossibility that they could end up here."
The new dolpharium "is not good for Arizona, for people, and for dolphins," Vail says. "You have to ask: 'This entertainment comes at what cost?' At the cost to the dolphins. It just comes down to right and wrong."
Watch the trailer for The Cove below:
**Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said Vail has worked at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation for 14 years. She has worked there for 17 years.