Not long ago, I took a colleague and his young daughter to meet Nelly, who is a very old acquaintance of mine.
Nelly is 57, which would be unexceptional but for the fact that she is a bottlenose dolphin - the oldest one in captivity. She was born at Marineland, near St. Augustine, Fla., in 1953, and has spent her entire life greeting and performing for tourists there.
I met Nelly in the early 1990s when my own children were small. Our vacation home is just a couple of miles from Marineland, so we got to know Nelly and her family. The dolphins liked to play catch. Between shows, they would toss a beach ball or basketball out of their pool and let their adoring public toss the ball back. This was just their way of passing the time. We had no fish with which to bribe them.
Marineland’s facilities in those days were antiquated though still charmingly informal. The park was founded in 1938 as an underwater film studio and was the first marine zoo of its kind. The movies “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and its sequel, “Revenge of the Creature,” were filmed there in the 1950s. After hurricane damage in 1999 and a bankruptcy a few years later, Marineland was rebuilt as an education center and reopened in 2006. Nelly now lives there with a dozen other dolphins.
Nobody swims with the Marineland dolphins today and they no longer perform tricks, but visitors can touch and feed them while curators explain how wild dolphins live and how captive animals are cared for and studied.
I have been thinking a lot about Nelly recently for several reasons. The first was the death last month of Dawn Brancheau, the Sea World whale trainer who was killed in Orlando by Tilikum, a male orca who grabbed her as she played with him just after a show. Brancheau’s death brought renewed criticism from animal activists who contend that intelligent marine mammals like whales and dolphins are unsuited to captivity and should never be used in performances.
Soon thereafter I watched “The Cove,” the Academy Award-winning documentary about the annual dolphin hunt conducted amid considerable secrecy in Taiji, Japan. A few of the dolphins are selected for sale to marine parks around the world, but most are slaughtered and sold for meat.
Animal rights activist Ric O’Barry is the central personality in “The Cove” and also entered the public debate after the Sea World incident. O’Barry helped launch the marine park industry by training the dolphins for television’s Flipper series in the 1960s, but he later had a change of heart. He now advocates freeing all captive dolphins and whales, though he recognizes that many domesticated animals would need human care in protected inlets for the rest of their lives.
O’Barry and others argue that the educational and public relations value of parks like Sea World and Marineland is overblown and does not justify what they see as the cruelty of confining creatures that, in the wild, would roam across hundreds or thousands of miles of ocean.
Finally, strange as it sounds, another reason Nelly and her fellow cetaceans are on my mind is last week’s failure by a United Nations body to list the Atlantic bluefin tuna as an endangered species. Bluefin population levels are crashing to dangerous lows, jeopardizing the survival of the entire species. But bluefin are prized for fine sushi — Japan buys about 80 percent of the world’s catch — and individual fish can sell for well over $100,000. Japan lobbied hard, and with ample foreign aid funds, for small coastal nations to join it in defeating endangered species protection for the bluefin. The proposal, which had U.S. backing, was rejected 72-43 by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
It is easy to paint the Japanese as villains who use cash and cajolery to create carnage on the high seas. It is not so simple, however. The Japanese have good reason to fear that any restrictions on the bluefin harvest will become permanent no matter how well the species might recover in the future.
This is what has happened with the International Whaling Commission, which has imposed a worldwide moratorium on all commercial whale hunting since 1986. There is ample scientific evidence that some whale species have recovered enough since then to support an annual catch that would at least partly satisfy the Japanese appetite for whale meat. The IWC has not dropped its moratorium, however. Japan nevertheless harvests some whales behind the fig leaf of “scientific research,” but one cannot blame the Japanese for fearing that international conservation agreements are a one-way street.
The people in Taiji would no doubt note that the dolphins they kill are common enough. Nobody argues that their species’ survival is in question. Is the killing in Taiji’s secluded cove worse than what happens in an American or European slaughterhouse? Would the advocates who filmed “The Cove” be satisfied if those dolphins were killed more humanely, but killed nevertheless? I doubt it, and I imagine the Japanese doubt it, too.
Whales and dolphins may be hogging the political support that less charming species like tuna need in order to survive. Bluefin are magnificent creatures that can weigh 500 pounds, but let’s be honest - a bluefin has the personality of a fish. No tuna will ever star in a TV series.
Advocates for freeing dolphins and whales are arguing on behalf of individual animals’ rights rather than the conservation of species. There is a huge difference, and the individual-rights argument raises difficult questions. Why is it inappropriate to eat a whale, or even to keep a whale, but okay to eat a cow? Should a whale’s presumed (but unquantified) intelligence give it more rights than a cow’s presumed (but unquantified) lack of intelligence? Or is the IWC’s continued ban on whale hunting a small step toward some sort of global vegetarianism, one in which each individual animal is presumed to have a right to live no matter how well its species is doing?
I was happy to see Nelly again. I’m quite certain she did not care about seeing me, inasmuch as I am not a mackerel. I don’t mind. I am glad to know that she seems healthy and well cared for, by people that want her to thrive in the only home she has ever known.
Does this mean I think Nelly is happy? No. I have no idea one way or the other. Ric O’Barry has spent much more time around dolphins than I ever will, and I know he thinks he knows whether captive dolphins and whales can be content. Until we teach them to talk to us, however, I will have my doubts.
There is one thing I’m sure of. Bluefin tuna need protection they are not getting, while some marine mammal species may be getting protection they do not need. If we have to wait for someone to make a movie about tuna before we make better choices, something is wrong.