The Observer On Sunday recently published an article entitled Swimming with Dolphins that was met with several rebuttals by animal enthusiasts and conservationists from the scientific community.
The original article outlined the ways in which families and patients benefit from swimming with dolphins in a programme called Dolphin Human Therapy Grand Cayman.
The focus of the story was one boy in particular, Noah Krebs, a 10-year-old German boy with cerebral palsy, who has seen many benefits from the therapy.
Animal protection agencies and animal rights groups have responded with comments regarding the larger topic of dolphins in human care.
Dr. Naomi Rose,senior marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society International, was one of the respondents.
“It is clear from your article that the parents do see much benefit in this therapy, but with all due respect for their daily experiences with a special needs child, I don’t think the parents are the best judge of what works and what doesn’t in this instance,” she said.
Rose questioned if Noah’s therapy was worth the cost of maintaining dolphins in captivity.
“I believe that dolphins (in particular bottlenose dolphins and orcas, as we know the most about them) may warrant the same moral status as young human children, due to their intelligence, self-awareness, and long lives,” she said. “If this is true (and I accept that there will be plenty of philosophical debate to come in order to resolve this question), then I put it to you that trading the welfare of one being for the (probably only temporary) well-being of another is not a fair trade.
“It is a question to which we should at least be giving a great deal of ethical and moral consideration,” she said.
She said that bottlenose dolphins do better in captivity than orcas (killer whales), but it’s not in the dolphins’ best interest to be confined in a small place no matter the quality of care.
But bottlenose dolphins thrive in the care of trainers at Dolphin Cove, according to Dolphin Cove’s Corporate Director of Zoological Operations Eric Bogden.
“Dolphins participate in interactive programs voluntarily,” he said. “And dolphin programs are safe for both humans and the animals.” Mariko Terasaki, research assistant at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washinton DC, says that having dolphins in captivity isn’t always wrong.
“If they are very sick, stranded, or otherwise incapacitated in a way that they cannot survive in the wild, it is not wrong,” she said.
But swimming with dolphins is different, according to Terasaki.
“I realize that therapy is very important for children and adults who have special needs. And I am in full support of programs that help them,” she said. “However, as with any program of this kind, the benefits – no matter how great they are – cannot completely stamp out the ‘other side of the story.’”
She said that if the dolphins are being utilized for the sole purpose of encouragement, motivation, or reward, than it would only be fair to look into the history and natural behaviours of dolphins.
“It is possible that they are captured from incredibly cruel drive hunts and are separated from their pod mates. Even if they are captive bred and have not experienced severe trauma, dolphins are not domesticated animals,” she said. “An animal that is more social and intelligent is capable of suffering to a deeper degree – for example, veterinarians are known to prescribe anti-depressants to captive chimpanzees and dolphins.”
Bogden explained how this is off the point.
“Each dolphin participates in husbandry behaviours each day,” he said. “The health of every dolphin is closely monitored by a team of veterinarians. And only positive training methods are used based on operant conditioning.”
He added that most importantly through human interaction with dolphins, guests develop an appreciation of the importance of conserving animals.
Bottlenose dolphins can be found in most of the oceans of the world, including the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Dolphins are mammals that have an average life span up to 50 years in human care.
Bottlenose dolphins eat fish, squid and other small marine life, and consume up to 30 pounds of fish per day.
There are currently two Swim with Dolphins facilities on Grand Cayman – Dolphin Cove and Dolphin Discovery.