“I want to see the dolphins.”
This was the response I received when a cruise excursion was offered to my daughter. I am sure there was a noticeable hitch in my breath and a look of panic flowed across my face. Not because I was afraid of these loveable creatures. Not because of the cost. (Although that too is insane.) Rather, I was hesitant because of a documentary that I had seen about the dolphin industry. It is called The Cove. And it almost turned me into an animal rights activist. Almost. The documentary won an Oscar in 2009 and is perhaps one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. It centers around a Japanese town where there is a dolphin industry.
We arrived at the dolphin “farm” and were herded into an open air room along with a hundred other people, all eager to get their chance to kiss a dolphin. We squeezed onto wooden benches and noticed the signs on the walls, explaining about humane treatment of dolphins and environmentalist suggestions to help save the seas, dolphins and other marine life. On either side of the posters were two televisions, looped to show past dolphin encounters. Maybe this place was a humane business.
Then in walked the head dolphin trainer. He proceeded to tell rules and about the dolphins. To tell the truth, I immediately started recalling the documentary and wondering if he was in it, choosing his “prized performers.”
After the easily forgotten presentation, we were separated into groups and hurried to our “pool,” a concrete deck with a pool in the middle of it. We all sat around the water as instructed and put our feet in. It was the coldest water I had felt since visiting Maine.
The woman running this part of the excursion spoke and told us a little about the dolphin and what he could do and then she instructed us to walk through the pool, one person from each group crouching down and receiving a kiss as we did so.
Now, in all honesty, if you read Izzy’s blog and saw her picture, you only got half of it. Standing to her left (conveniently cut out) is Julie and myself. We show how cold it truly is. Julie is frenetically clenching her fist and looks insane. I stand next to her, unable to touch her because the frigid water has briefly frozen all movement.
In comes the dolphin and we are quickly posed for a picture. Izzy got kissed, I fake smile and we quickly exited the pool, grateful that the air outside was in the 80’s that day. This goes on and I immediately notice the routine. The dolphin kisses, receives a treat and jumps back, kiss, treat, jump. Over and over and over. I look around, the people are loving it. Everyone.
I notice the rake marks on the back of the dolphin. These are from other dolphin’s teeth and happen during play time. I wonder if any are from mistreatment though as the line of people moves through the pool. Kiss, treat, jump back.
We are instructed to enter the pool again to continue our encounter. I notice this time when we walk into the pool that we are stepping onto a rusty walkway that “our” dolphin must flop onto time and again. Humane? Does it hurt? Can we even tell?
We step into it and the majestic mammal again appears with a perpetual smile that can be so misleading. They only smile so we do not know what they are truly feeling. We are instructed to walk to the edge of the rusty platform and receive a kiss from our friend. We all do, but I look down and notice the edge is still four inches away. Plenty of room for him to scratch his stomach on, I think, and push Izzy closer to the edge.
The dolphin comes in and rises up to give kisses. All the while, I think of how many times he must have scratched himself on the platform. He raises his beak and kisses Julie. I push Izzy closer to edge. He kisses Julie again. I nudge Izzy closer, taking steps forward myself. He kisses Izzy. She smiles and I am happy the she finds this so enjoyable and she has gotten her wish for this cruise. He rises up to kiss me. I look into his eyes. Can it tell that I do not want to do this? That I feel bad? Can it understand? Does it feel exploited? It is a living creature after all. I notice that its mouth is wrinkled and soft, not smooth like the rest of it. How many people have kissed this thing, with cold sores, cuts, bad breath, colds, the flu, etc.? Can it catch our illnesses? Could it die from it?
He moves down the line. Next come the hugs from a dolphin. I notice that Izzy and I have moved back from the edge again. I move us closer. We are instructed on how to kneel so he can hug us. If we do not, he could hurt himself. He starts to move down the line. Julie, Izzy and then me. He almost leaps up and places his weight on me. It is a massive feeling. I feel his head on my shoulder and think of our dog back at home, knowing I would not want him exploited for a profit. I look in his eyes as he moves on to hug Mac and then Chelsea, making his way down the line. All of us kneeling and making this majestic beautiful creature come out of the water and place its body against our bodies and bathing suits. The dolphin has moved down the line to the last woman who refused to listen. She is standing as he rises up to hug her and she is knocked off balance, taking him with her against the rusty grate. Idiot.
The dancing is the second to the last part. He makes his way down the line and we are instructed to grab his fins and dance with him. I can’t bring myself to clasp his fins, thinking that if we hold too tight or yank on them, it will hurt him. I turn in circles like he does, dancing with him.
At this point I do not care what the keepers say. Everything from The Cove is coursing through my mind. The mistreatment, the hacking to death of dolphins, the taking of dolphins from around the world, removing them from their natural habitat and placing them in tanks.
How can we keep fooling ourselves and think that the way they are kept is humane and helping them? Is it kind to subject the dolphins to at least two shows a day for weeks on end? Make them deal with idiotic humans who can’t follow instructions? Can we really convince ourselves that they enjoy the attention? Do they really enjoy being kissed, hugged, groped and stroked by hundreds of strangers?
I have to admit, I loved the feeling of the hug by the dolphin. But it was almost like one of those guilty hugs as you say thanks for the memories, I am sorry that you have to stay here and go through this again, but I have a boat to catch. I had his weight on my shoulders for those brief seconds and still do.
I went into this experience hoping to make my daughter happy and give her a lifelong memory. I did not want my opinion of what I had witnessed in The Cove to influence her experiences and keep her from making memories. I walked out of it more resolute in the fact that even my daughter’s happiness and memories were not worth the cost. I had just paid hundreds of dollars for five people, myself included, to exploit another living creature for enjoyment. Not humane. And as happy as it makes others, I will not, cannot do it again. Maybe the dolphins do enjoy it. I don’t know. I just think of whether I would want that for me, my family, heck, even my dog. And the answer is no I wouldn’t and I don’t want it for any living thing.