Though captive dolphins generally “work” up until the day they die, the National Aquarium in Baltimore is taking a progressive stance and wants to retire the eight dolphins currently on its premises so that they can live the rest of their lives peacefully and with minimal human intrusion.
While the sentiment is commendable, it raises a problem: where do retired dolphins live? John Racanelli, the CEO of the National Aquarium, and his staff are exploring the options of establishing a sanctuary for dolphins. With no precedent to guide them, however, the logistics are pretty complicated. “There are [sanctuaries] for dang near every other megafauna species that’s in a zoo!” points out Racanelli to National Geographic, emphasizing the need to create something similar for dolphins.
Having spent their lives in captivity, the older dolphins are probably ill-equipped to handle being liberated into the ocean. With threats like oil spills, ship collisions, fishing nets, viruses and pathogens, and jellyfish that they’ve never previously been exposed to, sending them to fend for themselves in open waters is probably not the best option.
Racanelli listed two priorities for setting up a sanctuary for the dolphins:
From a financial perspective, it is a risk for the National Aquarium to willingly part with its dolphins. The mammals are definitely a big draw to the location, but there are plenty of other popular attractions featuring species that are not as confined in an aquarium setting. Furthermore, they hope that having technological capabilities that showcase the retired dolphins remotely will prove exciting to visitors anyway.
The National Aquarium already reduced the performative nature of dolphins a few years ago. “Shows are antiquated. No animals at zoos perform in shows any more,” said Racanelli. “We somehow reached a level of enlightenment with chimpanzees, elephants, tigers, and lions. Why are we still interested in having dolphins do shows?”
Rather than having dolphins swim in time to music or toy around with a ball, the aquarium staff now puts the emphasis on activities that dolphins naturally do in the wild like jumping out of the water and slapping the surface of the water with their tails. As these behaviors occur, staff members explain to visitors why dolphins do these actions in the wild.
Overall, both aquarium-goers and aquarium staff have regarded the change positively. While some visitors miss the flashy shows, most seem to appreciate the heightened authenticity of the new dolphin experience, considering it not only entertaining, but also educational.
With a growing number of Americans realizing the cruelty of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity, it’s likely that whatever kind of sanctuary the National Aquarium ends up creating will become a prototype for similar facilities. Although Racanelli insists that the first priority is figuring out how to care for these particular eight dolphins, he adds, “If we figure out a way to do this and raise the money for it to happen, I can’t imagine not offering it to others so that their animals could go as well.”
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