Dolphin and Whale Sanctuaries: Still Just a Field of Dreams

I just returned from the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Captive Wildlife Conference in Burbank, CA, where prominent scientists, veterinarians and advocates converged to discuss the ongoing effort to end the exploitation of captive wildlife.

The first day was dedicated to presentations on elephant welfare in zoos and circuses and the critically important role sanctuaries continue to play in getting captive elephants out of exploitive and abusive situations and into a more naturalistic and caring setting. There are only a handful of legitimate elephant sanctuaries around the globe and only two in the United States. Clearly, we need many more qualified sanctuaries for elephants and other wild animals.

On Day Two, I spoke on a panel about marine mammal captivity with Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, Blackfish producer Manny Oteyza, and Lincoln O’Barry of Ric O’ Barry’s Dolphin Project about the fact that even though the situation for elephants, big cats, bears and primates in exploitive captive facilities is deplorable, it’s still not as bad as it is for dolphins and whales. There’s one simple reason for this: While there are at least a few sanctuaries for land-based animals, there are no dolphin or whale sanctuaries anywhere in the world. Not one.

Sure, there are captive facilities that call themselves sanctuaries, but that does not make them legitimate havens of protection and lifelong care. Rather, they are typically places that exploit the dolphins under the guise of the title “sanctuary”. A genuine sanctuary provides an environment in which the residents can lead some semblance of a satisfactory life closer to the wild setting. In a real sanctuary like PAWS, the only interest is in the welfare of the residents; they are not used as a means to an end – i.e. for profit or publicity.

While there are at least a few sanctuaries for land-based animals, there are no dolphin or whale sanctuaries anywhere in the world.Those of us who are working to phase out dolphin and whale captivity for entertainment in places like SeaWorld have to contend with the reality that even if we were successful we’d have nowhere to relocate them. Captive dolphins and whales cannot just be dumped back into the ocean. Even those who are good candidates for eventual release need rehabilitation in a more natural setting where they can feel the tides and shifting temperatures of the ocean, regain some physiological conditioning and autonomy, and learn to survive. Moreover, given that the majority of captive dolphins and whales will not be releasable, they will depend upon sanctuaries for care throughout the rest of their lives.

In a recent blog post in The Dodo, Dr. Naomi Rose expressed concern about the precarious situation in which captive dolphins and whales find themselves. Even if places like SeaWorld decide to end captive entertainment, she argues, there will need to be a transition plan for these animals so that they don’t end up “going from the frying pan into the fire” – like being sold off to entertainment corporations overseas. Those of us who advocate for dolphin and whale freedom have to be ready to offer a legitimate practical solution. We do not want the lack of sanctuaries to be the show-stopper for the long term effort to phase out dolphin and whale exploitation.

So while signs of movement and change are encouraging, we need to add the missing component to our efforts: the funding and building of legitimate sanctuaries for dolphins and whales in this country and around the world.

The National Aquarium is already discussing possibilities for creating a sanctuary for the bottlenose dolphins they currently hold so that they can live out their lives under better circumstances. And there are other protocols for rehabilitation and release which have been employed successfully around the world by organizations such as Born Free Foundation. All of these efforts demonstrate the feasibility of rehabilitating dolphins and whales in sea pen sanctuaries.

There are also already plans, protocols and even identified locations for some captive orcas, such as Lolita, who has been held at the Miami Seaquarium for over 40 years after being taken from her natural home as a member of the Puget Sound southern resident population of orcas.

More of us in the marine mammal community need to focus our attention on the need to develop and implement plans and campaigns for creating sanctuaries.

Currently, dolphin and whale sanctuaries are just a field of dreams. But, if we build it, they will come.

7 Replies to “Dolphin and Whale Sanctuaries: Still Just a Field of Dreams”

  1. Charities should start building these sanctuaries now so that when the time comes it is ready to take residents

  2. This shows excellent foresight. I think it will eventually be found that dolphins born and raised in captivity are “developmentally disabled” in terms of their echolocation abilities compared to their wild-raised counterparts, due to the echoes and reverberations encountered in a concrete tank environment. It would be like trying to raise a human child in a hall of mirrors and expecting it to grow up normal.

  3. Thank you Lori for bring attention to the need to develop plans, protocols and places for orca sanctuaries, and thank you for linking to the Orca Network retirement plan for Lolita.
    I also posted an article addressing some of these same issues in SeaWorld’s Orcas Deserve a Retirement Plan.

    1. Thank you Howard. Great article of yours! Clearly this is an idea whose time has come!

  4. I would like to see somebody create a computer animated short film that would show the public what a sea pen would look like, how it would work, and how it could benefit captive cetaceans removed from marine parks.

    The excellent film on YouTube called “What is the cove?” is an example of what I have in mind.

  5. personally, I think, the marine parks that have exploited and made billions of dollars on these intelligent creatures should pay sanctuaries to be built and maintained. We out here asking for change do not want to see these innocent creatures sent to countries where they will suffer even more than they are now.I am glad to hear this discussion taking place. We need to think ahead for change to be successful.

  6. Today I found myself watching a documentary entitled “Blackfish” i was nieve to say the least when I first pressed that play button, mearly hoping to be entertained for the next 2 hours as I have a passion for both knowledge and wildlife. What I saw however, has fundementaly changed me as a person on several ignarant levels. How could I have been so blind to the sheer horror, that is animals being kept in captivity. Don’t Misunderstand me… I’ve always known it was quite simply wrong, it never sat right with me as an individual even as a child whenever I’d visit the zoo or the aquarium -but how did I not know the extent of the sicking truth behind the scenes… But deep down I kno why, I never let myself think that far ahead, never let myself question. knowing full well that the truth would hurt me so profoundly as a human being That I had in some way try to protect myself. My mind shunned away from the abhorrent endless list of possibilities in order to continue calling myself a good and decent person. Well no more. I Am so grateful that I happen to come across this today because I’m so ready to take action, had I continued to lie to myself, those animals would still be suffering today regardless. I like to believe one person can make a difference, I now intend to spend most of my time trying to prove that theory. no animal including the human species Would ever chose to live in a cage (given the choice.) So why is this happening? Why is it still continuing? We need to educate more people, like myself- to this blatant disregard of life. Who are we to pluck creatures from the ocean/wild… To take them away from what is essentially their families and all they’ve ever know. We train them to our own ends…. For Money/entertainment/to satisfy our own curiosity. no other creatures on this planet behave in this same way as we do, we as a general species, are quite simply shameful and an apsalutly insult to ourselves. When the shit hits the fan… When it takes enough people to say “enough” I don’t want to be one of the majority that simply followed favour. That played ignorant up until it became a world affair. We all have the ability now, to know its wrong, to do something about it. We can change the orca’s lives NOW. Be it 10 years or a day they get to spend in the wild- once more. I can’t think of anything more worthy other than helping our own and those less fortunate but at least we can help ourselves to an extent. They are not afforded the same privilege. They are not afforded anything but what we grant them. When did we decide to play God? And let’s hope one day in the future… Something much greater than ourselves (when evolution decides our fate) won’t turn around one day and decide to play God with our lives as we do the lives cage today because if that ever does happen, we will have not a leg to stand upon and rightly so! I’m so sorry for this apsaltue narrative of my opinions, it’s just that its touched me in such a way, I had to speak it out loud to stop the horrible churning of my own head. I felt that grief stricken after watching blackfish, I couldn’t really deal with the sadness of how it had affected me, alone. Thank you for reading. I hope just one person agrees with what I have written here today and another takes action.

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