by Mark Bekoff -
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
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
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
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
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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