Dolphins help us educate Forum Extra

Marilee Keefe

June 25, 1993|By Marilee Keefe

JEAN-MICHEL Cousteau ("Save the dolphin: Let it go free!", Other Voices, May 11) begins eloquently by pointing out that "contact with marine mammals is educational" and "observation helps us to understand and respect the animals, and engenders the will to protect them in the wild."

These are the premises on which the zoos, oceanariums, aquariums and marine life parks are founded.

A recent Roper poll shows that the American public is in near-unanimous agreement (92 percent) in its understanding that these facilities play an essential role in educating the public about marine mammals and the need for their conservation. Most people (86 percent), according to the poll, feel that if people learn more about these animals, they are more likely to become concerned about them.

Public display is the single most effective vehicle for fostering appreciation of these animals. There is little or no government funding to help with the much-needed education, conservation, research and rescue programs for marine mammals supported by aquariums.

The tens of millions of dollars spent on research by the marine mammal display and research community have taught us a great deal about these animals. Such scientific study is only possible because of animals in aquariums and oceanariums. The results of this research provide the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums the facts to refute the misrepresentations made later in Mr. Cousteau's article.

U.S. Navy research has conclusively proved that whales and dolphins can modulate their sonar at will, turning it on or off as they need to find food, navigate and avoid predators. Mr. Cousteau should know that.

A study for the government's U.S. Marine Mammal Commission said in 1988 that survival of dolphins in aquariums "may be better than or equal to survival in the wild," concluding at the time that it was not yet possible to compare survivability. More recent studies have provided data to support this premise. Here again are studies Mr. Cousteau has ignored.

No trainer at a public display facility in the U.S. has ever been killed by a whale, as Mr. Cousteau contends.

Knowledgeable marine mammal veterinarians do not agree with the premise that dolphins and humans commonly exchange infectious disease, as the writer would have us believe.

And no oceanariums, aquariums or marine life parks in our alliance withhold food to elicit behavior. The training of marine animals is always done in a positive manner. Successful relationships develop only when the animal and trainer have a good rapport, based on mutual respect and trust.

Forty years ago, when the public had no opportunity to learn about dolphins, millions were mindlessly slain around the world by commercial fishermen and sportsmen. The few hundred presently in aquariums have succeeded in helping to persuade men, women and children of good will to take up the cause against those who would harm these animals and their environments. Today we are beginning to learn about the dangers dolphins face from pollution, destruction of their habitats, careless fishing and lethal trash -- especially plastic products -- dumped thoughtlessly in our oceans.

With Mr. Cousteau's ability to impress so many people comes a great responsibility to teach and inform, to inspire the necessary changes in attitude and behavior so important to the conservation of dolphins and other marine mammals.

He has let us all down by perpetuating myths that are misleading and untrue, and he has avoided current, readily available science in his treatise.

Our collective goal should be to strive daily to educate the new generation of young people to the delicate balance between humans and wildlife, and to their responsibility to protect the environment.

In a September 1992 National Geographic article, a long-time dolphin researcher said it succinctly: "Our knowledge of these dolphins is their protection."

The continued educational display of these animals is critical to their future well being.

Marilee Keefe is executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, based in Alexandria, Va.

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