Animal Writes
5 April 2000 Issue
Dolphins and Humans

by Mark Bekoff - [email protected] 

Most people probably don't think about dolphins except when they see reruns of Flipper or their brutal slaughter for food. However, many people travel widely to find these magnificent beasts to fulfill lifetime dreams of viewing or swimming with them. Some also seek out the company of dolphins to cure psychological disorders. However, there are serious consequences both for the animal and humans beings.

Dolphins are highly intelligent and emotional animals with remarkable social and intellectual skills. The same factors that drive us to befriend them also drive us to protect them. Why, then, do some people freely intrude into their worlds if it harms them?

Dolphins are often fabricated to be the animals we want them to be, cute, harmless, with mystical qualities. The staged-encounters involved in "swim-with-dolphin," "petting pool," and dolphin-assisted therapy programs are very controversial. Dolphins are unable to avoid the humans and are highly stressed. Indeed, captive dolphins having repeated encounters with humans have enlarged adrenal glands indicating high levels of stress. The chlorinated water in which dolphins and humans interact may also be unhealthy for all parties. There's also little evidence that dolphin-assisted therapy is effective for treating such disorders as depression, autism, cerebral palsy, or mental retardation.

Furthermore, interactive programs with dolphins aren't more effective educationally than non-interactive programs. Indeed, many people fear these programs send the message that it's all right to take wild dolphins into captivity and keep them in small tanks of chlorinated water where they are bored and die prematurely. Another major concern is that these programs teach people to expect the same kinds of interactions with wild animals, who actually are quite dangerous to humans. The number of humans seriously injured by wild dolphins grows each year.

Feeding programs also raise major concerns. Dolphins may be fed foreign objects that harm them, and there's little educational value to these programs. Many experts believe that dolphins simply cannot be accessible to people and at the same time be protected from harm.

While feeding and harassing wild dolphins is illegal in the United States, this isn't so for other countries to which tourists travel. Wild dolphins have been fed firecrackers, golf balls, plastic objects, balloons, and fish baited with hooks (so they can be captured). Provisioning with fish has changed the social behavior of bottlenose dolphins in Monkey Mia, Australia. Dolphins also change their foraging patterns and swim in heavily trafficked waters. Some get struck by boats. People also have been seriously injured trying to feed wild dolphins.

Ecotourism (swimming with wild dolphins, whale watching, visiting seal rookeries, photographing animals), also raises serious questions concerning the effects of human intrusions on dolphins and other marine mammals. Humans can cause social groups of these and other animals to break up and seal pups to stampede and be trampled. Individuals are also injured by boats.

Dolphins and all marine mammals are closely linked to the wholeness and integrity of various ecosystems. By paying close attention to how we influence their behavior and well-being we can help maintain the health of individuals, populations, species, and ecosystems. Marine mammals are awesome, stunning animals. Let's not doom dolphins and their relatives. Let's give them room to live and respect them for who they are -- for the very qualities that attract us to them in the first place.

Marc Bekoff teaches in Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology at CU-Boulder.

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