In the controversial cetacean captivity debate, the shows are a major topic, but the dolphin petting zoo rarely gets touched on. At marine parks like Seaworld, you can pay an extra fee to feed dolphins, and hand over even more money to get a picture taken while you are feeding dolphins. This interaction is of course not voluntary. The Seaworld staff explains in this commentary that the dolphins are only there to receive the food, they are not there for quality, meaningful interaction with the guests. “Once the fish is gone, so is the dolphin.”
In the same video the dolphins swarm to the edge of the pool as soon as they see the white tray of food being passed out. They even clamour over top of each other get their tiny, limp, dead fish, and will hang around with open mouths begging like dogs. Guests that pet the dolphins without giving them a fish often get nipped at. Keep in mind that these animals are naturally apex predators that hunt. Of course, we know why the dolphins are begging like this – they must be hungry!
Dolphins that are kept in these “petting zoos,” may become overweight, and stressed. Crowds of people come in every day to give them dead fish, and splash in their water. There really is nowhere for the dolphin to hide if they want refuge from the noisy crowd. These people who handle the dolphins food may have sicknesses or diseases. But it’s not just unsafe for the animals. The guests are at risk of bites, and are also at risk of misinformation. At Seaworld the animals are not seen acting naturally and freely. They are only observed when they are begging for food at the edge of the pool, or acting like circus clowns in a marine animal show. This is the animal’s life. And it promotes disrespect for wildlife, rather than a well-informed appreciation.
So what is the purpose of this interaction? Aside from monetary gain for Seaworld Corporation, there is no purpose. The guests are not educated about the dolphins, and if there happens to be an “educational” commentary at any time, it includes information that could’ve easily been learned elsewhere without forcing the animals to live against their nature in a swimming pool.
Monetary gain is also the reason why Seaworld, and similar facilities have taken advantage
of the “swim with dolphins” craze. Because people across the world have seen the success of places like Discovery Cove at Seaworld, they feel like they could profit off such a business as well. In turn, they purchase animals from drive fisheries to stock their captive swim-with dolphin populations. This demand encourages and funds dolphin slaughter around the world, and will coerce others to take part in the profitable industry of the live cetacean trade that damages the image of wildlife and depletes their wild populations.
These swim-with programs include being dragged around a pool by a dolphin and giving it hand signals to do some more tricks for your entertainment. The advertisements for programs like Discover Cove, often present people swimming freely with the animals in a one-on-one setting against a tropical island backdrop. It appears to be very magical, but these interactions are, once again, not voluntary, not done by free will, and certainly not natural. Interactive sessions with captive dolphins are highly scripted, and supervised, but for good reason. Dolphins have been known to exhibit sexual acts on human guests. There have been bites, scratches, even broken bones. This causes me to question whether those who are mentally handicapped, physically handicapped, or children should be having such close contact with the animals.
But what is to be expected? This is where the animal lives and what it does on a daily basis for hundreds, even thousands of guests that walk into their tanks annually. Do you think that they enjoy the experience? My goal here isn’t to make people afraid of the dolphins, but to realize that they should be viewed with some respect and selflessness.
There are several alternative programs that exist for encountering these animals. Wild swim-with programs are much safer than the captive option. The animals are seen at a distance behaving like dolphins should in their natural habitat. To top it off, the interactions are on a voluntary basis on the part of both human and dolphin, which makes the experience that much more meaningful.