Hurricane Irma Vs. Florida Keys Dolphins

This image of Hurricane Irma’s projected track from the National Hurricane Center puts a bullseye on the Florida Keys. It may change course, but it is making me wonder what the various dolphin facilities in the Keys that keep dolphins in lagoons will do to protect their dolphins (Dolphin Research Center and Dolphin Connection, Theater Of The Sea, and Dolphins Plus).

The Florida Keys are now under an evacuation order. Leaving the dolphins in their net pens has risks (if the pens get torn up they can tangle up the dolphins and drown them). So does letting them out into open water, which is the preferred protocol, and the dolphins usually show up again looking to be fed. During Hurricane Andrew, DRC opened the gates. One dolphin, Anessa, chose never to return.

Of course, Miami Seaquarium, and Lolita, are also at risk. During Andrew a wall of water washed through the facility.

Especially dangerous times for captive marine mammals in Irma’s path of destruction.

 

 

Releasing Captive Dolphins Back Into The Oceans

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Chunsam, with her freeze brand #2 sorta visible, enjoys life back in the wild.

 

As the public becomes more aware of the ethical issue involved with keeping dolphins and killer whales captive, and public sentiment about captivity changes, the question of whether captive dolphins and killer whales can successfully be released back into the wild is increasingly relevant.

While there have been many releases of captive dolphins, there have been relatively few releases of long-term show dolphins, and even fewer that were fully documented. In recent years, however, two bottlenose dolphins (named Tom and Misha) were successfully released back into the Aegean, and three bottlenose dolphins (Jedol, Chunsam, and Sampal) were successfully released off Jeju Island, South Korea. All had spent years in marine parks, yet managed to learn what they needed to learn to survive again in the ocean.

Both releases were carefully documented, during and after release, and show what can be achieved, even with dolphins that have suffered greatly in captivity. My story about these dolphins,  and the question of captive release, was just published at National Geographic.

Here’s the start:

In early January 2011 Jeff Foster, a 55-year-old marine mammal expert from Seattle, arrived on the stony shore of a pristine bay near the small village of Karaca, situated in a corner of the Gulf of Gökova on Turkey’s southwest coast. Just offshore was a collection of floating pens used to farm fish. In one of them, which had been modified and measured about a hundred feet across and 50 feet deep, two male bottlenose dolphins swam in slow circles.

Tom and Misha, as they were called, were in lamentable condition. As far as anyone could tell, they’d been captured in the Aegean sometime in 2006, and almost nothing was known about their lives in the wild. After starting their captive lives at a dolphin park in the seaside town of Kaş, they’d been trucked a short distance inland in June 2010 to a crudely constructed concrete pool in the mountain town of Hisarönü so that tourists could pay $50 for the chance to grab their dorsal fins and get a ten-minute tow. Hisarönü consists mainly of cheap hotels and bars with suggestive names like Oh Yes! and thumping late-night music. It would be hard to imagine a more incongruous or disorienting location for two ocean-born dolphins. An inadequate filtration system quickly left the bottom of their pool carpeted with dead fish and dolphin feces.

Within weeks, an outraged grassroots and social media campaign organized by dolphin-loving locals had forced the place to close. In early September, amid fears that the dolphins would soon die, the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of animals in the wild, stepped in and took possession of Tom and Misha. The two dolphins were bundled into a refrigerated meat truck lined with old mattresses and transported to the pen off Karaca. Foster was hired to help Born Free attempt something truly ambitious: restore Tom and Misha to peak physical condition, teach them what they would need to know to live as wild dolphins again, and release them back into the Aegean. “It is extremely high risk with a creature that is not predictable and easy,” says Will Travers, Born Free’s president. “But we realized that there were very few options for them, and they were likely to die unless somebody did something.”

You can read the whole thing here. And there is a great photo gallery here. Hope you find it interesting.

The Dolphin Trainer Who Loved Dolphins Too Much

Last year, I connected with a dolphin trainer called Ashley Guidry, from Gulf World in Florida. Over the more than 10 years she worked with Gulf World’s dolphins she had come to find her love of the animals irreconcilable with the business of using them for profit-making entertainment.

I have always been interested in how trainers’ attitudes change over time, as they learn all the subtleties of the marine park business, and also develop deep bonds with intelligent, captive beings. Many trainers say “I love my animals” as a way of suggesting that the animals are doing fine in captivity; that their “love” means that everything is fine (because it would prevent them from condoning or tolerating practices that harm the animals).

However, I have long thought that what many trainers mean when they say “I love the animals” is really “I love working with the animals” or “I love having a deep relationship with the animals.” In other words, that being a trainer is about themselves and their desires, and not really about the animals and the animals’ welfare.

But Ashley Guidry provided an example of what truly loving the animals means: by walking away from a business that treats them like commodities, and telling the story. That takes guts and self-sacrifice. And real courage.

The story I wrote about Guidry and how her thinking about the dolphin show business changed has now been published at Longreads.com. Here is the original introduction I wrote for the story (cut from the published story for brevity’s sake–even on the web you can’t go on forever!). I am posting it here because it sets up Guidry’s story in the way that I framed it in my own mind:

This a story about empathy, about it’s power to connect us to animals, but also to suddenly change the way we think about animals and our relationships with them. It’s also the story of a stubborn, sassy, blonde named Ashley Guidry, and how her love and compassion for a dolphin calf turned her life, her career, and her view of herself completely upside down. Because it was empathy–and her undeniable compulsion to try and consider the world from the point of view of a little guy named Chopper–that unexpectedly dumped her into a morass of introspection, self-doubt, and painful self-discovery. In the end, Chopper changed her life for the very simple reason that she couldn’t change his.

Read the full story of Ashley Guidry’s change of heart here.

Reader Mailbag: Don’t We NEED Zoos?

In response to Humanity Vs The Planet, Philip just posed a very legitimate (though depressing) question:

Tim, why do you advocate against zoos and aquariums? Do you honestly believe that things are going to get better? 7.2 billion humans on Earth with all of our garage and oil spills, radiation, by catch. Where are the animals supposed to live? What will the planet be like when there is 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion humans? Where will the animals live? African elephants have reached a tipping point, more are killed by poachers than are being born. The Yangzte River dolphin is extinct, there are only 50 Maui’s Dolphins left. The list goes on.

That had the benefit of forcing me to organize my thinking about zoos and aquaria (at least a bit!). And here is how I responded:

I do not have absolute feelings about zoos and aquariums. I am against for-profit zoos and aquariums for sure. And worry that the idea that zoos and aquariums can somehow preserve or substitute for animals in the wild will only hasten the demise of animals in the wild. And a part of me wants to say that if we are so short-sighted and self-interested as to destroy the environments the animals need to survive in the wild we don’t really deserve to be able to enjoy them in zoos and aquaria. Plus, I do not believe that our pleasure at seeing an animal on display in captivity should outweigh any suffering that animal experiences by being in captivity. So, you are correct, I am not really a fan of zoos and aquaria.

But there is one context in which I can support the work of zoos and aquaria: and that is in the preservation of the genetics that would allow us to reintroduce or repopulate an extinct or threatened species if we ever did change enough about the way we treat the planet to restore the environment they need to thrive in the wild. That sort of Noah’s Ark strategy, as much as I hate that it has come to that, is hard to dismiss. But for me to accept that as a sufficient rationale for zoos and aquaria, the captivity and display model would have to change dramatically to better serve the interests of the animals, and serve less the interests and desire of curious humans seeking amusement.

This also continues a conversation started by Carl Zimmer in the comments section of a post about zoos and the passenger pigeon.

The Virgin Pledge** (**Including Loopholes And Caveats)

After months of deliberation, Sir Richard Branson has finally settled on the language of the pledge he wants captive facilities to make if they would like to continue to do business with Virgin companies. Here is how the Virgin Pledge reads:

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While Branson and Virgin should get credit for at least engaging on this issue, and while this pledge would mean that a marine park can’t just buy a Taiji dolphin and continue to do business with Virgin, that’s about all it achieves. If you caught lots of wild dolphins for your shows before February 2014, no problem. If you engage in breeding loans with marine parks that capture wild dolphins and killer whales, no problem as long as the animal you are importing wasn’t wild caught (though it can be the offspring of a wild dolphin or whale, allowing your breeding program to benefit from wild captures). So the limitations it places on marine parks are quite narrow. Perhaps that’s why many, including SeaWorld, have already signed the pledge.

More problematic is the fact that the pledge is riddled with potential loopholes, for “rehabilitation,” “rescue,” and (this one could eventually be massive) “support for endangered species.”

The pledge says that rehab of injured or stranded wild dolphins or whales is okay, as long as you go to the trouble of at least pretending that you intend to try and follow rehab with release. But if you don’t happen to follow through, then feel free to go ahead and use the rehabbed animal in your shows and in your breeding program. Sorry, Morgan.

Rescue is similar. If a government authority deems your rescued dolphin or killer whale non-releasable, you are good to go. Shows, breeding, whatever.

What is not clear is whether a “rehabilitation” animal needs a government agency to say the animal can’t be released (making the animal a “rescue” animal?) in order for a facility to keep the animal. Or whether the simple declared intention to rehab and release is enough for Virgin to continue doing business with you if you decide circumstances have changed and you can’t release your rehabbed dolphin or whale. If the latter, then the “rescue” provision pretty much does nothing.

In some ways, that distinction doesn’t really matter. If Sir Richard and Virgin had dug deep enough into the issue of rehab and rescue they would have discovered that it is without question a backdoor into captivity for at least a proportion of wild animals, often with the willing assent of government authorities who for decades have sided with the marine parks over conservation groups when it comes to deciding whether an animal is releasable or not.

The last exception, “Support For Endangered Species” sounds like it could develop into a significant loophole, though we’ll have to see how Virgin chooses to interpret its language. These days, many wild captures or import permit requests claim that bringing a wild animal into captivity will help conserve it in the wild. However, most dolphin species (including most killer whale populations), and many whale species are not listed as endangered.

So what will this exception mean in practice? If the Georgia Aquarium succeeds in reversing the National Marine Fisheries Service denial of its request to import 18 wild-caught belugas, would Virgin stop doing business with Georgia Aquarium? Georgia Aquarium, notably, has not yet signed Virgin’s pledge. But SeaWorld has. Would SeaWorld be able to “borrow” some of Georgia Aquarium’s wild-caught belugas and claim this exemption by arguing it will be helping conserve wild beluga populations? If it could then the exemption will open up a pretty big door into captivity for wild-caught animals, especially as wild populations continue to come under pressure from pollution, noise and climate change.

Here’s the bottom line. Virgin says that “our core objective was to eliminate demand for whales and dolphins from the wild.” I think a fair reading of the pledge is that it could reduce demand for wild captures (and how great that reduction is will depend on how Virgin interprets the actions of marine parks according to the Pledge), but it will certainly not eliminate demand.

For all these reasons, whale and dolphin groups have issued a statement in response to the Virgin Pledge, correctly noting its limitations. Smartly, they call on Virgin to continue refining its pledge to reflect evolving public opinion on the issue of marine mammal captivity:

Although the pledge is a step in the right direction, we expected more from the Virgin stakeholder process, and we are calling on Virgin to return to the table to discuss  key future actions including a commitment to (1) work with suppliers to end shows and captive breeding programs within a specified timeframe , (2) prohibit breeding or display as part of rescue or rehabilitation programs, and (3) help develop sanctuaries or other alternative display environments that ultimately improve the quality of life for captives that may never be returned to the wild.

This is exactly the right response, and since this controversy over captivity will not go away simply because Virgin has issued its first take on the pledge, I think that the dialogue between Virgin and all stakeholders will continue to evolve over the coming years. Of course, that does not do much good for the dolphins and whales currently in captivity. But I think the Virgin Pledge reflects an important acknowledgement that there are ethical issues with regard to the current captivity model, and that changing public opinion means that the captive industry is not always a good industry to be doing business with (as Southwest and others have also concluded).  And as public opinion and awareness of the ethical issues raised by marine mammal captivity continue to build, businesses like Virgin will continue to challenge the captive industry to evolve and change for the better.

[Personal nit-pick on the Virgin Pledge: Sir Richard, in his introduction of the Virgin Pledge, says that the announcement he made in February, which set all this in motion, was that Virgin businesses would only do business with suppliers who pledge not to take “sea mammals” from the wild. Yet the pledge only applies to cetacea (dolphins and whales). So as far as Virgin is concerned it is still a free-for-all when it comes to capturing wild sea lions, walruses, and other pinnipeds for the shows. Somehow they got dropped from the pledge, and since that is the case Virgin should stop referring to the “Virgin Pledge On Sea Mammals.”  It should correctly be called be the “Virgin Pledge On Some Sea Mammals (But Not All Of Them Because People Care More About Dolphins And Whales)”].

Animal Care Angst

AC HortonNursing

Over the past month I’ve been digging into the lives of former SeaWorld Animal Care workers, and publishing their stories (here, here, and here). Many of their experiences seem shocking to people unfamiliar with animal care work, and how difficult it can be. And it is easy to see how the stories can fuel an anti-SeaWorld sentiment.

Jim Horton, one of the three former Animal Care workers I interviewed, was troubled by the vehemence and hardcore anti-SeaWorld nature of some of the comments he saw posted to social media in the aftermath of the stories (big mistake, to read comments, I explained). And also by the fact that many of the stories published in the Animal Care series focus on the negative aspects of the lives of the workers and the nature of managing animals in captivity.

Animal Care obviously includes a lot of positive experiences, where animals are nurtured, rescued, or saved. And the thing I admire most about the Animal Care workers I spoke with and wrote about is that they did the work–with all the good, the bad and the ugly–because they cared first and foremost about the animals. They weren’t there to become Shamu Stadium stars. They were there because they loved animals and wanted to care for them. Eventually, especially for Krissy Dodge and Cynthia Payne, the nature of the work, and the way in which captivity compromised the lives of the animals, forced them to step away and pursue other careers. But the point is that Animal Care work, and the emotions and realities involved, is not at all simple. How Animal Care workers feel about the work they do, especially post-Blackfish, is an intensely complex subject, and that didn’t always come across in the articles I published.

So in order to dig deeper into what Jim Horton felt and feels about the work he did, and how Blackfish opened up many difficult questions, I am posting (with Jim’s permission) a letter that he wrote to a friend. In it, Jim explores and articulates the powerful and conflicting emotions he feels about the work. And if you want to judge him or Animal Care workers harshly, as so many were quick to do, I only ask that you make sure you read this letter first:

Dear ……,

I feel your pain. I think the movie Blackfish and it’s flock of anti captivity followers has made us all take a deep look inside at what we have done over the years and where we are now emotionally in our careers as animal care takers. Torn between our love of the animals we have come to know and the public outcry from those that have never experienced what we have, with the exception of a few. I find it very ironic that the world of those we entertained and taught priceless educational values to are now claiming injustices and untruths that rock the very core of our souls, creating gaps and even bitterness between our friends, co workers and family.

I’m sure you can recall as I can the hundreds of times we were told by the public, family and friends that we must have the greatest job in the world. I recall, later on in my career, often scoffing at that comment and explaining to those that would listen, that this career is a labor of love and full of extreme highs and extreme lows and at times can very well be the worst job in the world. Those people, the ones looking from the outside in, so-called experts by the very knowledge that we as teachers have taught them, through the media and personal interactions, have no idea what it was like and also what it is like now.

What they don’t know and what the media never found newsworthy is the extreme duress we’ve gone through. The news only covers the animal’s story, not ours. The nights on end of watching, medicating, note-taking of sick animals. Every 3 hour tube feedings, injections and enemas, standing alone in poop-filled pools in freezing temperatures to bottle feed baby manatees or baby dolphins, while those around us celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, forgetting their anti-captivity rhetoric, while we shiver through the night, tired and hungry in the middle of a 24-hour shift doing everything you can to save a creature who has put all of it’s trust into us. Knowing fare well that if you screw up, fall asleep standing up, or miss a subtle cue of distress that this beautiful creature may die. They have not experienced the pain of watching and the feeling of the last heartbeat and breath of a dolphin, sea lion, or manatee dying in your arms, looking you straight in the eye as if to say help me or thank you, and in those final moments only you can decipher the final thoughts before death. You begin to cry if you’re alone there in the dark and cowboy up if you’re surrounded by peers, only to let it out in the seat of your car in your employers parking lot at the end of a very long day. You sit and ponder in anguish at what you could have done differently to save this one and what you can do the next time. You celebrate their life by helping the next one of their species.

Unless you’ve done it, one could never understand what it’s like to cut open and remove the brains and eyes of an animal you’ve cared for all it’s life. Sure, you put on your scientist mask, bundle up all of your emotions and swallow them like a big nasty pill and commence to do your job in the efforts of science and discovery and the personal need to know why. Your internal emotions and feelings of sadness, images of the happier times with this animal run through your veins in the form of liquid courage and it takes all of your might to carry on stoically. Hoping to find that smoking gun, that reason for not surviving your treatment. You hope to see the worst, a cancer, an infected kidney, inoperable stomach blockage or a brain abnormality. Often we find nothing and spend the rest of the evening wondering what went wrong and what could you have done differently. The thoughts haunt you through the night as your friends and family wonder why you’re so despondent and can’t sleep or why you aren’t in the mood to eat that piece of steak. Our reward is to move on to the next case unless you are one of the unfortunate ones that has to make that trip the following day to the rendering factory to dispose of the carcass and once again, feel those emotions as you toss a head that you’ve hugged a thousand times into a vat of guts while dodging the spray of nastiness.

They will never know the pain of the animal bites, the broken bones, contusions, sprains, cortisone injections, IV fluids, stitches, ear infections and the unfortunate times you had vomit, the diarrhea and the long dead animal guts and maggots fly into your eyes and mouth.

They will never know the disappointment and the emptiness you cast upon your families with missed vacations and birthdays and the wonderment by those you love that can’t understand why you lack emotion at the death of a family pet or when you make an early decision to put the animal to sleep, knowing early on the inevitable suffering that prolonging death can create.

They will never know what that final rub down, that saying of I’m sorry, what that pat on the back of an animal feels like when you are getting ready to inject a life ending medication in an upwelling of humbleness and hopelessness, a surrender of effort of all your skills to prevent suffering.

They will never know the terror and horror, the sounds and images of being in a rescue van or cage or pool when an animal goes through its death throes. Flailing about in a final fit of uncontrollable rage, sending humans, skin and blood flying through the air, destroying everything in it’s path and then the sudden unexpected feeling of what was once hope comes crashing to the ground in a matter of seconds.

They will never know the many times we came very closed to being killed, mauled, drowned, or losing a limb, toe or finger or co worker in the efforts of just doing our job, you know, the one that is the greatest one in the world?

And so now were are forced to believe by many that this isn’t the greatest job in the world, that all that we’ve done, all of the pain and effort, tireless nights and trips to the hospital is a bad thing. They say our animals are treated poorly, our facilities are substandard, and we should be ashamed. Ironically, in a much misinformed manner, these foul cries of care seemed limited to the United States, where the best care in the world is provided. Having transported animals all over the world, I have truly seen the atrocities of animal care in third world countries. But that’s ok I guess, because we only believe what we see and fail to listen to the real experts. Untouchable they are the third world facilities, look at Taji. Those animals are captured and slaughtered every year, yet there are more outcries regarding a little blonde haired girl blowing a whistle–feeding and rubbing down an animal that she truly loves and will give her all with great sacrifice to her life and those around her in an effort to give that animal a good life- than the cries of slaughter. The paths we chose in the animal industry we didn’t always chase. We started as education staff, operations staff, cigarette butt picker up’ers, scuba divers and bucket washers. Suddenly, we were given the opportunity to be closer than most to these wonderful creatures. I’m sure there isn’t a soul in the business who hasn’t stated that “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this”. So innocent and inexperienced, having no idea that this journey will take you through a river of emotions, good and bad and that those children that you teach and share the joy of making a connection to animals, those children will grow up to say what you are doing, the efforts that you made, were not in the animals’ best interest.

I can truly say that I am against captivity and I am for captivity. I think perhaps, maybe it’s time to end Killer Whales in Captivity, but why not the elephants? I don’t really see the need anymore, we’ve learned about all we can. On the other hand, if it were not for having killer whales in captivity, who would have freed Willy? Who would have rescued, rehabilitated and released Springer? Who would have flown to Turkey for 2 years of their life to train captive dolphins to be wild again and set them free? Who of you out there are planning and watching every day the case of Morgan the Killer whale in Spain. Who of you is experienced and ready to leave your family for years to train and release this little whale back to her family? Who is prepared to make real sacrifices other than spouting verbal diarrhea from your warm cozy couch with an I Pad……..We are!

We are the ones who still love our job, we love animals in our care more than our friends and our future. We are proud of our accomplishments, we do make a difference in the lives of others, we are tough as nails, we are not afraid, we can control our emotions, we can laugh in the face of adversity and we can succeed where others have never tried. We teach and train the animal caretakers of the future, there will always be a need for us. Who is going to save the beached animals of the future? Movie directors?

I am proud of who I am and those that I have helped have a better life. I am not part of the problem, I am the solution. I am an animal husbandry specialist and I will never stop caring.

There you have the conflicts, the pathos, and the doubts (and certainty) of animal care, all wrapped up into one deeply felt letter. I don’t criticize Animal Care workers. In my view they are doing their best, for the right reasons, in a captive entertainment model that is flawed and that I think needs to be reinvented. I reserve my skepticism and criticism for that model, not for the people who do their best to ease the lives of the animals trapped in that model. It is easy to say they shouldn’t do that work. But if they didn’t do you think the lives of the animals would be better or worse? I thought so.

UK’s Guardian Looks At The Future Of Marine Parks

Seems like everyone is trying to peer into SeaWorld’s future these days (and they should be!). But Will Coldwell of the Guardian does a really nice job of picking up all the trends in play right now:

While SeaWorld continues to dig its heels in – pointing out that tens of thousands of visitors are in its parks right now – others are responding more progressively. In 2012 the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a highly regarded institution synonymous with its dolphin show, cancelled its performances. Since then visitors have been able to sit and watch the dolphins as they are simply taken care of by staff. Now, the aquarium is considering retiring their eight bottlenose dolphins altogether and is in talks to create the first ocean-side dolphin sanctuary in the US. Its decision was based on regular polling of visitors; it learned that people no longer felt comfortable with the show.

“Our audience has evolved,” Aquarium CEO John Racanelli told Baltimore Magazine. “Baby boomers grew up on Flipper, but millennials grew up on Free Willy and The Cove. They are interested in these animals being treated more humanely.”

Others are following suit. This September, the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida announced it would also end animal shows, choosing to focus on rehabilitation and marine resources instead. When asked by the Guardian if SeaWorld would ever consider a similar move, the company said the terms “retire” and “sanctuary” are misplaced in the context of animal care. But added: “The short answer is no.”

I think it’s very telling that Baltimore’s National Aquarium based its evolutionary leap toward the future on polling its own visitors. Presumably SeaWorld is regularly polling its audience as well, and I wonder what those surveys are saying (maybe that info will turn up in one of the imminent shareholder lawsuits).

Read the whole thing. You’ll finish with a good understanding of all the forces in play right now.