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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.

Compared to living in the open ocean, says Brad Andrews, vice president and assistant zoological director of Sea World in Florida, life in captivity is a Club Med vacation. "In the wild, animals are driven to find food," he says. "Here it's provided for them. They don't have to search that much for their food. . . . They don't have to worry about breeding . . . protecting their young."

Frequently, facilities that entertain and educate the public with displays of cetaceans also allow scientists to observe these animals under controlled conditions. Researchers are able to conduct not only studies that tell us more about cetaceans' use of sonar, their intelligence and how they communicate but also biological studies that could benefit wild populations.

Gregory Bossart, the veterinary pathologist for the Miami Seaquarium, is studying the immune systems of captive dolphins to help solve the mystery of massive die-offs in which hundreds of animals have washed up dead on American shores. Biologists theorize that the animals' immune systems have been weakened--by pollution, perhaps, or by an AIDS-type virus--leaving them vulnerable to a host of diseases. And researchers such as Bossart, studying the animals under controlled conditions possible only in captivity, hope to find ways to keep the wild dolphins alive.

John McCosker, director of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, which has two dolphins, reluctantly concludes that the benefits of capturing and studying cetaceans outweigh the costs. "Every day I come to work and think about it," he says. "I look at them, and I anguish a little. I feel sad for them, yet at the same time, they'd be cat food if it weren't for the fact that awful shows like 'Flipper' and the best (oceanariums) and even some of the other institutions that display them enlightened the public that these weren't just big fish."

NAVIGATING BETWEEN PRO-and anti-captivity forces is the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for protecting the health and safety of both wild and captive whales and dolphins in U.S. territory. Before 1972, when Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, anyone with a boat and a net could go out and lasso a dolphin. In the early '60s, people would buy bottlenose dolphins from Miami Seaquarium for $350, load them into the back of station wagons, take them home and stick them in back-yard swimming pools. When a dolphin died at the Seaquarium, trainers simply dumped the body and went out to catch another.

There's no question the situation has improved over the past 18 years. The fisheries service sets quotas on the numbers of dolphins that can be captured in U.S. waters and bases those quotas on estimates of wild populations, so that, in theory, they will not be depleted. Today, dolphin trappers must file for a permit, specifying the age, size, sex and species of the dolphins or whales they intend to take and where the captures will take place. After marine mammals are captured, a trapper must report how many animals were accidentally killed during the operation, and that number is deducted from the total the catcher is permitted to take. Those who fail to report deaths, or who commit acts of negligence or cruelty, may be fined or have their permits revoked.

There are also captivity guidelines regulating the size of tanks and pens, water and food quality, and health care.

It sounds like a good system. But the fisheries service has failed to enforce it. Until last June, the agency did not require inspectors to observe dolphin catchers, relying instead on reports filed by the catchers themselves. It rarely sent independent veterinarians out to verify the circumstances of cetacean deaths. And current and former trainers, divers and veterinarians report that capture and necropsy reports were frequently fictionalized to cover up deaths and negligence.

If a death was admitted to, the collectors or oceanariums involved rarely accepted the blame. Take, for example, the dolphin that died in Kelly Williams' arms. Some might attribute the fatality to capture shock--a death caused by the stress of capture--but MAP's Solangi says his necropsy revealed the calf suffered from chronic ongoing pneumonia. The fisheries service accepted that explanation. There's no point in falsifying death reports, Solangi says. "As a scientist myself, I need to know what actually transpired so we can learn from it and help better manage the animals," he explains. "Why would a reasonable mind, after so much time and effort and expense, have an animal, not even take care of it, and when it dies not even know what it died of?"

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