When we heard that eight-year-old Jillian Thomas was bitten by a dolphin at SeaWorld Orlando’s dolphin petting pool, we were not surprised. This kind of thing has happened before, and it will likely happen again if dolphin petting pools remain open. What did surprise us, however, is that some parks still allows this level of abuse to continue.
Many aquariums in the United States have already shut down their dolphin petting pools, citing their inherently abusive and unsafe nature. When you watch the video, you can see the level of chaos around the pool as dozens of yelling children hold out small fish for dolphins to beg for.
And beg they do. Captives are kept intentionally hungry, so that they are forced to interact with park visitors. As you can see, the fish portions are very small, to keep the dolphins constantly coming back for more and enduring the poking and prodding of thousands of hands on their bodies.
Sometimes the dolphins are touched in rough or painful ways by well-meaning tourists, potentially introducing pathogens into the water and onto the dolphins’ skin. Inevitably, garbage is dropped in the pool, creating a choking hazard for dolphins. And visitors get injured by the dolphins. Clearly, the regulation of this facility is desperately inadequate, putting both dolphins and humans at risk.
Regulation of dolphin interactions can be difficult, even when it involves experienced professionals. The death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, as documented in the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” demonstrates that cetaceans don’t always follow the rules – especially when they are stressed, frustrated and demoralized, as captives tend to be. Expecting children to follow the rules in an uncontrolled chaotic environment such as the Discovery Cove petting pool is a recipe for disaster – something that SeaWorld is hiding beneath a false sense of security and by laying blame on parents for not controlling their children.
Of course, there are big incentives for dolphin abusement parks to continue to exploit dolphins in their petting pools. Charging exorbitant prices for the small feeding fish adds to the enormous profits that the dolphins already bring in. It’s really a win-win for the owners and lose-lose for the dolphins – just business as usual, I suppose.
It’s important to note that very few, if any cases exist of wild dolphins harming humans. Quite the contrary – there are thousands of stories and accounts of dolphins actually helping people. We are not returning the favor by keeping dolphins in these captive situations.