It was extraordinarily good news in March when SeaWorld, in cooperation with The HSUS, announced it would end the breeding of orcas and phase out its orca theatrical shows. Today, another big-name brand in the world of captive display of marine creatures has made a far-reaching announcement: the National Aquarium and its CEO, John Racanelli, have announced a plan to move eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins from their captive setting in Baltimore to a seaside sanctuary off the coast of Florida or in a Caribbean nation, over the next four to five years. In his announcement, Racanelli noted that the facility and he have “evolved” and are transitioning from “an entertaining sea life attraction to a nonprofit aquatic conservation organization.”
“We are committed to creating conditions for all of the animals in our care to thrive,” Racanelli wrote in an op-ed in today’s Baltimore Sun. “In the dolphins’ case, we know far more today than 25 years ago, when the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Pavilion, the dolphins’ current home, first opened on Pier 4. Emerging science and consultation with experts have convinced us that dolphins do indeed thrive when they can form social groups, have opportunities to express natural behaviors and live in a habitat as similar as possible to that for which nature so superbly designed them.”
This is the first such effort of its kind for dolphins. There are an estimated 300 or so dolphins now kept in captivity, including 100 used by the U.S. Navy. Racanelli’s effort is more evidence that animal-based facilities and attractions are adapting to a changing cultural and scientific environment and making the physical and psychological well-being of the animals a top priority.
As I have traveled around the nation on my tour for The Humane Economy, visiting more than a few bookstores along the way, I’ve noted so many other titles in the animal category, especially a whole series of them on animal intelligence and cognition. There’s already an incredible body of literature about dogs, parrots, chimps, and all manner of other creatures, and now there’s a new title every week or two. My colleague, Jonathan Balcombe, has just released a book called What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. Other notable works are Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, Frans de Waal’s Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, and Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Meanwhile, there’s very little of substance on the other side of the debate. Old ideas that animals act by instinct, don’t reason, and don’t have feelings are now considered discredited, or even embarrassing.
That said, the challenges of providing bigger, enriched environments for captive wildlife are immense, and the costs are incalculable. The animal protection movement is straining under the weight of the financial burdens imposed on it by reckless individuals and institutions and the deficiencies in public policy that exist in regard to these issues in the United States. Our nation, for example, has dozens of facilities that report taking in rescued big cats – an animal care responsibility that, if done properly, costs tens of millions of dollars every year. There’s a new chimpanzee sanctuary in the field now, called Project Chimps, and The HSUS is a primary backer, caring for hundreds of chimps coming out of private laboratories, at a long-term care cost that approaches $100 million over the animals’ life spans. We are already running a chimp sanctuary in Liberia, where chimps are housed on islands and live outside of cages, and even that facility will cost tens of millions.
Racanelli has done something terribly important here. But it is the beginning of the discussion, not the end, and space, money, and science all must be brought to bear as these discussions move forward. Most of all, I’m pleased that he’s pushed the discussion ahead by putting “dolphins first” – indicating that “the individual needs of the dolphins take priority over those of all others, including the public, scientists and donors.”