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Loving Dolphins To Death : Is Our Fascination With Marine Mammals Endangering Their Lives?

April 07, 1991|DAVID WEDDLE | David Weddle is a free-lance writer based in Malibu.

Until the sluggish economy stalled the industry's growth, it seemed that every community with a luxury hotel would soon have its own poolful of dolphins. There are 30 new marine parks on the drawing boards. But the remarkable growth of the cetacean entertainment industry has caused a backlash. Animal-rights groups have become increasingly worried that for these fragile animals, capture and life in captivity can only be torturous--or far too expensive to make humane on a large scale. Such fears have brought together a coalition of activists in a kind of "Free Flipper" movement that has worked, legally and illegally, to release captive dolphins and to regulate their captors' actions. But, say some scientists, these groups--the most extreme of which oppose not only profit-making marine parks but also nonprofit aquariums and research facilities that study whales and dolphins--also exploit romantic illusions about cetaceans, in this case, to push a far broader agenda into the public spotlight. After all, says one marine-mammal veterinarian who asked not to be identified, "you can train a pig to do more things than you can train a dolphin to do. But how many people look at the bacon on their plate and think, 'What have we done?' "

The deaths of large numbers of dolphins in the wild caused federal officials to put a moratorium on dolphin captures last year, and none of the animals were taken from the wild in 1990. But now, as the government prepares to resume authorizing captures and begins to revise the guidelines for captivity, a disturbing question has become the centerpiece of the debate over the relationship between humans and cetaceans: How can we keep from loving these animals to death?

KELLY WILLIAMS, A RESIDENT OF OCEAN SPRINGS, MISS., NEVER STOPPED to wonder how the dolphins at the local marine park came to be in those show tanks in the first place. She'd grown up watching "Flipper," read John Lilly's books, and become fascinated with the animals, eventually landing a job at Marine Life, a park in Gulfport, Miss., in the spring of 1983. She thought it would be like what she'd seen in movies and shows; she envisioned herself forming a close bond with the dolphins, one of mutual love and respect.

But she got a rude awakening that June, when she accompanied a crew of Marine Life trainers and divers on an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico to capture more dolphins for the park.

As Williams tells the story, the trouble began when the capture team--which included three boats and a spotter plane circling overhead--surrounded a pod of 13 dolphins in shallow water. Setting nets on a pod can be risky: Once dolphins realize they are trapped, they often panic and charge the net, entangling themselves and twirling violently in an effort to break free. The capture team would have a difficult time handling all the dolphins should they hit the net simultaneously; without someone there to untangle them, the dolphins could rip their flippers off, gouge out their own eyes or worse.

But Mobashir "Moby" Solangi, the marine biologist who is Marine Life's curator, was, according to crew members present, eager to set the nets. He overrode the protests of crew members who argued against going after the pod, ex-staffers remember, and ordered the main boat, the Sawfish, to let out its net.

The dolphins huddled together, confused by the turbulence of the circling boats, unaware that they'd been trapped until the net closed around them. Suddenly, a mother and her calf--which Williams remembers as being about a week or two weeks old and Solangi recalls being closer to a year old--panicked and charged the net. Both animals thrashed and spun, tangling themselves up in the net. The more they struggled, the tighter the rope web became, dragging them below the surface.

Mike Woods, the park's director of training at the time, and another trainer, John Fishback, dove in and rushed to untangle the calf first. Woods had cut the young animal loose and begun guiding it out to open water when Solangi ordered him to bring it aboard the Sawfish. Solangi wanted to ensure that the process of freeing the mother wouldn't be complicated by the calf's swimming back into the net. The calf was brought on board and placed on a foam pad, exposed to the full force of gravity for the first time in its life. Kelly Williams laid a wet a sheet over its back and tried to calm it while the crew moved to free the mother.

"The baby was screaming and hollering for its mother, lifting its head up," Williams recalls. "And the mother (in the water) was screaming for it. . . . I'm trying to keep it wet and calm. . . . It was just like taking a human baby from its mother. The baby was screaming, and you could see the fear in its eyes. . . . It was horrible."

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