The “Hope” of the dolphin captivity industry

While not news, a story reported this week in the Tampa Tribune Online reminded us of the ways that monies move around to support the institutions dedicated to dolphin captivity.  The story recognizes that the movie industry often demands, or perhaps expects, tax incentives to arrive in “your town” to film its highly lucrative product.  These incentives do not appear out of thin air.  They are accomplished by funneling the hard-earned money of taxpayers to support selected corporate endeavors.

About midway through the article, is a recognition of how this was accomplished to support both the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the makers of the upcoming film, A Dolphin Tale 2.

The movie sequel “Dolphin Tale 2” faced a similar dilemma last year. Producers wanted to film in Clearwater but tax credit money was an obstacle.

So backers persuaded the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott to sign off on $5 million in state money for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The aquarium turned over the money to producer Alcon Entertainment.

It isn’t clear whether the real shame here is that the aquarium industry is being supported, or, rather, whether it is that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), in particular, is.

Winter who will forever reside amid the noise and crowds of a movie

Winter who will forever reside amid the noise and crowds incited by a movie

The shame is that the CMA and Hollywood use Winter, a dolphin whose tail fluke was so damaged by being caught in a crab trap that her fluke was removed, to make money. It really isn’t complicated.  Winter pulls on the heart-strings of people who rightly feel compassion for this unique, handicapped dolphin.  Of course she does.  All dolphins should.  But rather than have our compassion support an industry whose primary goal is to maintain captivity, we should open our eyes and find those institutions whose goal is to end the notion that captivity teaches us anything like respect for the wild ones.  That the CMA is willing to pass the $5 million to the film-maker should tell you something.

The new movie, paid for in part by that $5 million in taxpayer monies, will focus on yet another dolphin, this one named Hope, who was reportedly rescued three years ago as a baby after she stranded in the Indian River.  The rescue of stranded dolphins is a noble undertaking.  But rescue should come with the remainder of the “Rs” : Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release.

But one should consider that the same industry that wants us to believe its commitment to all three of the Rs, has seen – and been a proximal cause  for – the deaths of  91% of orcas captured since 1961 by and for their industry.  The numbers of dolphins who have died in captivity is mind-boggling when one considers that their captivity only became significant during this human generation’s lifetime.  In its defense, the CMA has released a significant number of dolphins that it has rescued. Far more, however, have died at CMA, likely because once stranded, the odds against successful rehabilitation of dolphins are low.

But it is also undeniable that Winter’s “uniqueness” is being used as capital for those who charge admission, whether to aquariums or to movies.  So, is Hope also “unique”?  Does Hope have an infirmity that prevented her release to a wild Indian River pod? Or does she, like Winter, merely “‘have that . . . something particularly interesting and readily visible’ to keep attracting visitors?

The fact remains that each dolphin is unique.  While we may not know their real names, it has been demonstrated that dolphins do know each other by something that we call “names.”  In the meantime, we call them “Winter”, “Hope”, “Tilikum”, “Lolita”, “Shaka” and we use whatever “uniqueness” we can invent via our language to justify their retention in the captive quarters of concrete tanks.

The “hope” that we should have for the dolphins is not found in a movie, the aquariums that those Hollywood productions support, or even in the successful rescue of a flukeless individual.  The real hope for the dolphins is in their freedom from captivity and in safeguarding their passage through life in an uncontaminated habitat.

While those who would put tax monies on the production of a movie, perhaps those tax monies should be utilized to find the reason that dolphins are dying in record numbers in Florida’s Indian River, to clean up the mess that has been made by years of discharge into that water body, and to stop the polluted run-off from pesticide- and fertilizer-enhanced agriculture-water.

Instead of being hope for the dolphin captivity industry, that would provide real hope for the dolphins.

Dolphin in Indian River. Photo Credit:

Dolphin in Indian River. Photo Credit:

To learn more about the captivity industry, go see Blackfish (available on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon), winner of the 2014 Genesis Award for outstanding reporting and creative portrayals of animal-protection issues.

For JerryLee.  Thank you for your unwavering support for the real welfare of dolphins.

4 responses to “The “Hope” of the dolphin captivity industry

  1. Great article. The 3 R’s…loved that. Sadly, I believe, the captive industry believes in the 3 M’s. Money, Money and Money. In a world where compassion takes a back seat it is awe inspiring to see so many people come together as a collective force for these beauties. Never give up, ever, caring about these lives. Thank you for your compassion! <3

  2. I hear that SeaWorld Orlando is planning a new attraction to showcase their animal rescues. This is no doubt an attempt to improve their image in the aftermath of Blackfish.

    Of course, it is only another diversion away from the real issue of orca captivity.

    Would like to hear Mo Brock and others comment on this development….

    • The good news is that it shows that SeaWorld is listening. But the very typical news is that SeaWorld is, as ever, missing the point. Any animal advocate supports rescue efforts of any organization, even SeaWorld. But the amount that SeaWorld spends on rescue is miniscule relative to its income from ticket and other sales. Further, it is my understanding that SeaWorld receives monies from other sources than its sales to fund the rescue work.

      And it clearly is, as you point out, a defection, a distraction and using PR to move the focus to another issue.

      In contrast, if SeaWorld would end ALL the exploitation, the captive breeding, taking of wild “specimens” for its “collection”, then its rescue efforts would have meaning, and would move toward being the kind of organization that it could be, and should be.

  3. Thank you for providing the world with a peak into the new business strategy of CMA. There management has left behind the unprofitable 3 R’s of Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release in favor of the old Miami Seaquarium – “Flipper” business model where dolphins are made into movie stars and “licensed” for profit, and used to promote their “prison” as a tourist attraction and made to perform daily for their meals.
    Friends of Clearwater is concerned about this change in mission and planned new facility. We note for the record that no dolphin has been reported released from CMA since 2006. Also, to call attention to the sad fact that Hope was not provided the essential pre-release training in self-sufficiency and not allowed the opportunity of learning to catch live fish and thus by only hand feeding by trainers has been given by CMA management a life sentence of being held in captivity.
    Moreover there is a glaring lack of transparency at CMA. They refuse to share necropsy results for Indy (died in 2011) and the dolphin Panama (died in 2013). Why the secrecy? And most recently CMA refused to disclose even a redacted version of the full feasibility study upon which they hinge their ambitious fundraising campaign. They cite trade secrets as the reason. Is it a trade secret that dolphins often die in captivity due to confidential reasons?
    Friends of Clearwater is ready to bring a special screening of Blackfish to our tourism dependent coastal community in order to raise the consciousness of the ethical issues involved in the current Hollywood dependent mass entertainment business model. Thank you for helping bring the matter of ethics of the current directors of CMA to much broader public attention.
    The expression “Greed is Good” came from a Hollywood movie. It appears that false lesson has been appropriated by CMA. Only public awareness will provide the necessary mechanism for change.

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