The National Aquarium in Baltimore has taken a massive step forward in animal welfare by announcing it will retire its captive dolphins by 2020. Not only that, but the dolphins will go to an ocean sanctuary that will be the first of its kind in North America.
There has been a worldwide push for the release of captive cetaceans such as dolphins and orcas in recent years. India banned dolphin captivity in 2013, giving them "non-human person" status based on their well-documented intelligence and emotional sensitivity. Months later, the documentary Blackfish was released, exploring the cruel reality of captive orcas, another member of the oceanic dolphin family.
While the United States has not passed any federal laws on cetacean captivity, public pressure has forced entertainment-focused SeaWorld to end its breeding program and phase out its orca show, which involves the animals performing tricks. Even though the National Aquarium has long since ended using its dolphins for entertainment, it has decided that the humane option is to let them go.
Of course, ending animal captivity is not as simple as just releasing them into the ocean. Many animals born and raised in captivity are unable to fend for themselves in the wild because they don't have the same hunting instincts or familiarity with the environment. By creating a sanctuary in the ocean where they are protected yet not confined the way they would be in a tank, it's a win-win.
Once they are in the sanctuary, the dynamic between the dolphins and humans will change. The dolphins will have the freedom to hunt for food, but will also have human assistance, including veterinary care, if they need it. This will also give researchers an expanded ability to learn about dolphin behavior outside of a captive setting.
Those in favor of dolphin captivity often cite that aquariums are often the first place children are introduced to dolphins and by removing them, children are deprived of falling in love with them and becoming their advocates. The sanctuary will have that covered, as aquarium visitors will be able to view the dolphins in the ocean digitally. Not only will this educate the public about dolphins, but they'll be able to see them happy and free and learn to love them in their natural habitat.
The obvious question many may have for the aquarium is, "Why wait until 2020? Just let them go now!"
Problem is, the sanctuary doesn't exist yet. There are several tropical locations under consideration that match the environmental needs of dolphins, but it hasn't been decided if the sanctuary will be in Florida or the Caribbean.
On top of more room for the dolphins to swim, the sanctuary will also allow them to share space with other marine life. This sanctuary will be the first of its kind for the continent as it puts the needs of the dolphins first. This means that there will not be an opportunity for people to swim with the dolphins or any other activities that exploit the animals for revenue.
As understanding of the intelligence and self-awareness of dolphins continues to grow, it is hoped that more facilities will follow the lead of the National Aquarium and end the practice of holding these dynamic marine mammals captive.
A tax-deductible donation to the dolphin sanctuary can be made on the National Aquarium's website.
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