Dolphins Not Our ‘Smiling’ Stunt Animals

Jul 24, 2019

To the Editor:

I was stunned and saddened to read the recent opinion piece by Fran Pelham of Philadelphia, describing in great granularity her recent excursion to a Mexican dolphin enclosure (“Dolphin Experience is Magical, Motivational,” 7/17).

Now more than ever, we need and should expect editors to have a critical eye trained on facts and fairness and to exercise due diligence before going to print. That’s the job and it should apply to personal stories like Ms. Pelham’s, as well as opinion pieces. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here.

Ms. Pelham’s article is so completely removed from reality, to be oblivious to what these highly intelligent, highly social mammals endure for the sake of turning party tricks for people who check the “shore excursion” box on their cruise ship vacations. The column begs – rather, screams – for a caveat, a forewarning to readers that what she is describing has serious repercussions. Again, that didn’t happen, which is why I felt obligated to write.

In the essay, Ms. Pelham describes an environment where dolphins live in a “well-enclosed lagoon” in a “national park” where smiling animals push and pull people around using their dorsal fins and endure vacationers standing on their backs as if they were living waterskis. In reality, these enclosures are nothing more than a small cage where wild dolphins work 12-hour days and compete for “treats” of dead fish.

Consider this, Ms. Pelham: It is well documented that dolphins in the wild swim between 50 and 60 miles a day, their pods sometimes numbering well over a hundred. Their habitat is the entire coastline and ocean you see in front of you. They eat live fish, not dead fish, and are not beholden to trainers who use starvation as a training tool – how else do you think they learn to push someone out of the water when they lock their knees and get in a Superman pose?

And the dolphin Ms. Pelham “buddied up to,” the big male named Jupiter, sadly, has to buddy up with people; he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. He never has.

In addition, please know that by frequenting dolphin encounters or dolphin experiences as they are sometimes called, we are directly contributing to and supporting the illegal capture and trade of dolphins. The inhumane practice of keeping these incredibly intelligent creatures in cages and calling it educational or even conservation is preposterous. Denying these animals of virtually every instinct they have is a crime.

The irony of Ms. Pelham describing taking her children to dolphin encounters to learn they “faced enormous threats” is not lost on me and likely many of your readers.

The best way to experience and enjoy the sheer majesty of these animals is from the comfort of your beach chair. Be patient, train your eye on the horizon from July through August and you’re likely to see dorsal fins, in the dozens, traveling south. Free.

P.S. The perceived “smile” Ms. Pelham mentions, and that indeed dolphins do display, is an anatomical quirk. Dolphins cannot control their facial muscles and so they appear to be smiling when hungry, stressed and in pain.

Michael Karzis

New York City


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