With less than two months to go until the end of the current dolphin hunting season in Taiji, Japan, many of us are counting down the days until a 6 month reprieve of the slaughter that has been occurring almost every day since 1st September 2014. Whilst the “off season” signifies a short-term reprieve for dolphins and small whales that swim close to the shores of Taiji, take a moment to think about the dolphins that lost their lives during the 2014-15 season. In particular, those captured and destined for a life of misery and abuse at aquariums and marine parks worldwide.
Captive dolphins are trained to entertain and perform tricks for the paying public, taking part in grueling shows several times a day with dead fish as their reward. Some of these dolphins will give “lucky” visitors an up close and personal encounter where they can touch, kiss, ride and shake hands with them as part of a swim with dolphin (SWD) program. Whilst this may seem like an amazing experience, and people who have taken part in captive SWD programs describe it as ‘one of the most exhilarating and transformative experiences’ they have ever had, many visitors are unaware of the origin of these dolphins, and the hardship and cruelty they endure.
As well as offering swim with (SWD) programs, some marine parks have taken the concept one step further and invested millions of dollars in dolphin assisted therapy (‘DAT’) programs. Proponents of DAT programs claim there are many health benefits to be gained from taking part in such forms of treatment. One Turkish DAT program claims that through dolphin therapy, disabled children build a capacity to learn faster. Their website states, “in one or two months, they can acquire the knowledge and physical skills that will normally take them a year to learn.”
In spite of these claims, there is no reliable evidence that DAT programs actually work.
In her paper “Dolphins are not healers”, marine mammal researcher Lori Marino claims there is “absolutely no evidence for DAT’s therapeutic effectiveness.” Marino states that while there might be short-term gains, it is more likely that the feel-good effects can be attributed to being in a novel environment coupled with the placebo boost of having positive expectations, but nothing more.
In fact, Marino found that many parents whose children took part in a DAT program returned home to find that nothing had changed and any initial improvement was due to the excitement of the trip and the personal attention their child had received.
But what impact do DAT programs have on the dolphins? According to Marino, “captive dolphins spend their lives under tremendous stress as they struggle to adapt to an environment that, physically, socially and psychologically, is drastically different from the wild. The results are devastating. Stress leads to immune system dysfunction.” Many dolphins taking part in DAT “die from gastric ulcers, infections and other stress and immune-related diseases, not helped by their sometimes being given laxatives and antidepressants that are delivered in their food.”
Marino’s paper concludes with the acknowledgement that many desperate people will continue to visit DAT facilities for help with their own illnesses, but they may never realise that the dolphins they seek help from are likely to be as psychologically and physically traumatised as they are.
If people want to experience the feel-good effects of swimming with dolphins in an ethical, cruelty-free and sustainable environment, the only place to do this is in the wild where dolphins are free and will interact when they want to – not just because they are hungry. Before embarking on a swim with wild dolphins, it’s important to research tour companies to ensure their operations do not impact or intrude on the dolphin’s natural environment, are sensitive to their behaviours, and do not disrupt the dolphin’s feeding, resting, nursing and other behaviours that may have a long term impact on their health and wellbeing.
I went on my first swim with wild dolphins before Christmas 2014 as a present to myself and my family, and it was the most amazing experience I have ever had. The adrenaline rush you get when you see your first wild dolphin swim up from beneath you is the most wonderful feeling in the world. The naturally curious dolphins playfully dived and rolled around us, their cheeky antics bringing wide smiles to our faces. And when they’d had enough, they swam away as quickly as they had arrived. We didn’t entice them with food; we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and unlike swimming with captive dolphins, they didn’t play with us because they had been trained to do so. They played with us because they chose to.
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Article by Ruth Barnard of Purple Chameleon Communications for Australia for Dolphins