Dolphins belong in the ocean, not in a tank

DAN RODRICKS

April 08, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Human nature: If you like something, you don't want to hea what's wrong with it. If it feels good, you want to do it, not question it.

Sell us fresh fruit, but don't tell us about the slave-wage migrant workers who picked it.

Hey, baby, there's nothing like the feel of a fur coat; just don't show us how it's made.

Jesse Jackson's complaint with Major League Baseball might be legitimate, but spare us the social argument -- especially when we're on the way to the ballpark.

The circus is in town. Tremendous, the kids love it. But don't show us manacled elephants standing on concrete floors 20 hours at a time.

How about the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- in particular, its Marine Mammal Pavilion?

You went there and enjoyed it -- dolphins jumping, doing tricks -- and, having joined in the fun, you certainly don't want to hear that there's something wrong with this picture. That's why the animal liberators who showed up to protest during a dolphin show were roundly booed by the spectators, mostly adults treating their kids to a day at the aquatic circus.

The attitude goes something like this: Hey, we paid for these tickets and, though we know it's a tragedy to keep these exquisite wild animals in this big tank of water, we're having fun, so you can take your eco-sensitive morality and stick it in your ear!

It's human nature.

The National Aquarium is part of Baltimore's tourism apparatus. It's big. It's there. It's generally accepted as a good thing.

But I soured when they tacked on the $35 million marine mammal pavilion and started capturing more dolphins and whales to put inside. Having seen dolphins and whales in the wild -- on a $12 whale watch -- I felt they did not belong in a tank.

More important, I thought we owed our kids a little more than the same set of ideas we grew up with. Dolphin shows -- and zoos, for that matter -- use animals primarily for our entertainment, our viewing pleasure and -- this is a stretch -- our passive education.

Sorry, but we're supposed to be delivering a more progressive message to a new generation that is eager to be even more environmentally savvy and sensitive than the Earth Day crowd.

Mine is an argument about symbolism. It's an aesthetic criticism, not a scientific one, though there are grounds for that.

Within two months of the aquarium's opening in 1981, one dolphin was dead and three others developed stomach ulcers. Another dolphin died in 1984 and, in 1989, one of the beluga whales captured in Canada died. In late 1991, another beluga died during a training exercise. A dolphin calf was found dead at the aquarium Tuesday.

Would this animal have lived had it been born in the wild? The aquarium staff was quick to point out that deaths of dolphin calves are common and that, as a matter of fact, 40 percent of dolphins born in and out of the wild die within the first month of life. Another 20 percent are stillborn.

L So, did captivity contribute to this little dolphin's death?

That's not the question today.

The question is this: Can a community that enjoys dolphins doing tricks return them to the sea on the grounds that keeping them in a tank is in fundamental conflict with progressive environmental thinking?

I doubt it. The commercial dynamic is too strong.

But before I leave this topic, I want to share a hunch: Had more Marylanders had the opportunity to see dolphins in the wild, they would not want to see them in a tank.

The state of South Carolina last year became the first state to ban the public display of marine mammals. State Rep. Alex Harvin, who sponsored the bill, says his fellow legislators considered it a joke until they started hearing from constituents. There was an "unorchestrated, spontaneous" campaign to get the bill passed, Harvin says. "It came, first, from people along the coast, who grew up with dolphins, who were taught they were our friends, who were told those old wives' tales about them keepin' the sharks away. I go to the beach with my 4-year-old daughter and she claps her hands and that gets the dolphins' attention, and they respond by playin' and jumpin'. . . . Then we got letters -- not from lobbyists, because we recognize the falseness in lobbying, but from people from all over, and it came from the heart. . . ." It said: Keep the dolphins in the sea.

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