Over the next month, many of us will head to balmy destinations such as Spain or the Caribbean for a bit of fun in the sun. Some holiday resorts offer opportunities to swim or interact in other ways with dolphins, which may sound appealing, but "swim with dolphins" programmes have a dark underbelly, and many people - including me - are actively avoiding and speaking out against them.
"Swim with dolphins" or "dolphin encounters" are terms used to describe a variety of dolphin-themed activities. Besides swimming with a dolphin (or two), tourists can, for example, be pulled through the water by one (a "dorsal tow"), kissed by one or photographed with one. And while people have good intentions when they decide to get up close and personal with these astonishing animals, most are unaware of the suffering this lucrative industry inflicts on animals.
A great many dolphins used for these activities were torn away from their ocean homes, where they lived in vast, fascinating and complex habitats. They established close, cooperative and long-standing relationships with other dolphins and lived in large, intricate social groups. They swam together in family pods and covered up to 50 miles a day.
Once in captivity, on the other hand, they are imprisoned in chlorinated tanks or tiny ocean pens, where they can do nothing but swim in endless circles, doing silly tricks in exchange for dead fish. Deprived of the opportunity to play at will, hunt, choose their own mates or engage in any of the activities that make their lives worthwhile, they become listless, unpredictable and depressed. And who can blame them?
As if being forced to live in what is, to them, the equivalent of a bathtub isn't tragic enough, these unfortunate prisoners endure the added stress of having excited tourists invade their already diminished worlds. Even when they're tired or sore, they're made to pull tourists around by their dorsal fins for hours on end or to hold still while tourists touch and fondle them. And while these attractions make unsuspecting tourists believe that the mammals in their care enjoy these interactions, the truth is that the dolphins have no choice.
The scientific evidence that dolphins suffer in captivity is irrefutable. They navigate by bouncing sonar waves off objects to determine location and distance, but in captivity, their sonar bounces back at them off the walls of the pitifully small tanks and can drive them utterly mad. Whether they're torn away from the ocean or bred in a marine abusement park, the stress of their imprisonment can be so overwhelming that they develop painful ulcers, chew on the metal bars until their teeth disintegrate or even batter themselves against their prison walls to kill themselves. Yes, you read that right: so self-aware are these animals that they understand that suicide is their only means of escape.
And what are we teaching our children when we take them to participate in these activities? The only thing my daughter would learn from petting dolphins or any other wild animals is that they are supposedly ours to exploit and abuse at will. She would learn that selfies and photo ops are more important than an animal's life. That's not a lesson I'm OK with.
It took me years to open my eyes to this issue. My daughter has interacted with dolphins in Africa, and I participated in photo ops with dolphins as a child in Florida. At no point did we do this thinking it caused pain and suffering to the very animals we wanted to meet and show affection towards. But now we know different. Now, we are different. And we have a responsibility as parents and as compassionate citizens to educate our children and others about the truth.
Dolphins are intelligent, social and emotional beings - they are not toys, and we can no longer in good conscience keep them enslaved for our amusement. Attractions that do so stay in business only because curious tourists pay money for tickets. So when you're planning your next holiday, give animals a holiday of their own by crossing visits to any facilities that keep marine mammals or other animals captive off your to-do list.
And if you do want to see leaping dolphins, you're in luck: you can observe them in their natural habitat, right off the Irish coast.
For more information, or to join the campaign to help captive marine animals visit peta.org.uk
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