Me and a dolphin


Still at Discovery Cove, this was my first time interacting with a dolphin (well, porpoise). As I mentioned yesterday, I am generally in favor of zoos. I know they are not perfect and the non-accredited zoos are often quite awful. One of the places where my personal ethics make me a bit uncomfortable is when “intelligent” species are kept in zoos. As we have been trying to define “intelligent” for generations and seem to be unable to do, I am going to clarify by saying that I am referring to species of a significantly higher than average level of neural complexity that appear to live rich social lives and require constant interaction with their environment to be psychologically healthy. It’s not a great definition, but it does draw a line between octopuses which seem like good problem solvers and dolphins which seem genuinely intelligent. That said, I must admit to a likely human-centric view here.

Anyway, I get a bit uncomfortable when I see great apes and cetaceans in zoos. I tell myself that they wouldn’t necessarily be better off in the wild – great ape habitat is almost entirely gone, and the shallow oceans are far from healthy places to live. Physically, the dolphins are a lot better off in captivity. As for their mental well being, I always had a problem seeing dolphins in huge sterile tanks.

This is where I think that Discovery Cove has made great strides. Yes, the dolphins are taught to perform a routine and interact with guests. This can elicit memories (for those of us old enough to remember) of dancing bears at the circus. However, in talking with the trainers, I was impressed at how much effort was put into first, making the experience safe for the animals and second, designing the entire program around consent.

Discovery Cove has at least one pod of dolphins that live in a bay-like environment. It’s clean, but not sterile in the way that an aquarium is. The dolphins are trained to volunteer to come and play with the humans. They’re allowed to have their preferred trainers and if they don’t want to “work” that day, they don’t. Sure, they’re rewarded for performing with fish and fish-flavored jello, but that’s not all that different from humans being rewarded with money and occasional pizza parties.

While I, personally, did not enjoy the sameness and controlled experience that Discovery Cove offered – mostly because I’ve had experiences much closer to the wild – for the first time, I did not feel sorry for the dolphins. I think this is a big step in the right direction. I am also pleased to note that SeaWorld is reworking their older parks to build this newer understanding of cetacean psychology into the life experiences of all of their animals.

(And before you mention that movie, know that it was as misleading as the anti-Planned Parenthood “baby parts” video. People can edit footage to tell whatever story they want. SeaWorld isn’t perfect, but they’re not monsters either.)