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Biting the Hand That Feeds

The case against dolphin petting pools

The Humane Society of the United States

People eagerly line up along the pool's retaining wall, their hands outstretched and hopeful for even the briefest of encounters with the dolphins who look to these tourists, in part, for their daily meal. Kids squeal with delight, parents dangle their children low to the water for a closer look, and even the dolphins, with the natural upward curve of their mouths, appear happy.

What could possibly be wrong with this scene, which is played out daily during the height of tourist season at dolphin petting pools in the United States and elsewhere?

In a word: plenty.

Biting the Hand That Feeds: The Case against Dolphin Petting Pools, a 2003 report from The Humane Society of the United States and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), reveals that what looks benign is, in fact, unsafe for both the multitudes of people who participate in petting pools as well as the dolphins who are held in them.

Our investigation produced some troubling results. We found evidence that the physical interactions between humans and dolphins, particularly those involving the offering of food to the animals, can pose unacceptable risks to both participants in this artificial engagement. Dolphins may grow obese and aggressive. Humans can suffer bites and head butts. Even wild dolphins may be experiencing the fallout from petting pools, which foster an unnatural intimacy between human and dolphin.

These risks are very real, and people and dolphins face these risks every time they interact at one of the petting pools that have become a common attraction at larger U.S. marine parks. In these programs, customers pay small fees to feed dolphins (typically bottlenose dolphins) and are encouraged to touch these marine mammals as long as they like. These programs, not coincidentally, have no federal regulations to ensure safe interactions between dolphin and human.

Concerned about the safety of these human-dolphin interactive programs, WDCS and The HSUS undertook an investigation in 1996—with follow-up observations through 2002—into the behavior of both dolphins and visitors at the four (one has since changed ownership and been closed) petting pools operated by Sea World, which is owned by Anheuser-Busch.

An unhealthy diet

The fish fed to dolphins by petting-pool visitors is intended to supplement the animals' "official" diet. However, one staff member revealed that publicly offered food may constitute as much as 40% of a dolphin's daily diet at these facilities. We believe that inadequate staffing at petting pools prevents the accurate assessment of food intake by individual animals.

Some petting pool dolphins, who are able to out-compete their pool mates for the attention of visitors, have become so overweight that their bodies appear grossly deformed, and their blowholes are nearly covered by fat deposits. This problem is compounded by the fact that visitors were seen routinely feeding dolphins fish from other exhibits around the park as well as human food, including sandwiches and chips.

It is common knowledge that poor hygiene and the mishandling of food can lead to illness and death in captive wildlife. So it's troubling that our study recorded dolphins consuming fish that visitors had placed in the sun on the pool ledge, dropped to the ground, stepped on or torn into pieces to increase their opportunities for interaction (while increasing the risk of contamination).

Petting-pool operators must keep records of dolphins, including their injuries and illnesses. But because they aren't required to report how an injury or illness was caused, we can only speculate upon the degree of injury or illness that results from these poorly monitored interactions in the petting pool.

If a poor diet weren't bad enough, visitors have been known to drop a number of foreign objects into the pool, including some that pose serious hazards to the dolphins. Our investigation recorded a wide variety of items entering the mouths of petting-pool dolphins, including sunglasses, paper fish containers, coins, a stone, a baby's pacifier, and a hair barrette. Each of these has the potential to cause gastrointestinal blockage, poisoning or even death.

Stress and aggressive behavior

Dolphins in petting pools are constantly assaulted by noise. During the main tourist seasons, pools are open to the public for up to 12 hours a day. At the busiest times, seemingly hundreds of visitors may surround a dolphin pool, banging on the sides with their hands, coins, or other hard objects to attract the dolphins. Further away, there may be music or fireworks displays. The dolphins are subjected to constant sources of stress, with little opportunity for escape.

In the wild, individual dolphins have the space to avoid one another, but the close quarters of captivity make that impossible. The result is unnatural levels of aggression. Our investigators documented fresh wounds to the face, jaws, and dorsal fins of several dolphins. In such a competitive and crowded environment, these injuries may be a result of "bullying" type behavior by dominant dolphins.

Threats to visitors

Our investigations documented several incidents in which visitors were physically harmed, including bites, head butts, and trapped hands. Visitors were observed holding young children over the pool so that the young ones could touch the animals, and in at least one case we observed, this resulted in a child being hit full in the face by a dolphin who was interacting roughly with another dolphin.

What's more, we are concerned that the potential for transfer of viral, bacterial and fungal infections between dolphins and humans may be enhanced by the direct physical contact that takes place at petting pools.

Feeding dolphins in the wild

Although feeding captive dolphins is legal, the Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids feeding dolphins in the wild. However, the feeding of wild dolphins is a major problem in many parts of the United States and other countries. Dolphins who are fed by boaters and others are more prone to propeller injuries, shark attacks, and altered foraging habits. They may become nuisance animals, dependent upon handouts, and they have been attacked and injured (by feeding the dolphins, for instance, firecrackers or fish with hooks in them) by individuals irritated with the begging behavior encouraged by the general public.

We are concerned that by promoting the acceptability of feeding and touching dolphins, captive programs are encouraging the public to repeat their experiences with wild dolphins, which is not only illegal but may ultimately lead to the harassment of wild dolphins. We are also alarmed by the injuries sustained by people who have been seriously bitten by wild dolphins used to handout when they tried to interact with them, with or without food.

Little sign of improvement

During our almost seven years of investigation, we've seen little change in petting pools. In April 1999, we released a preliminary report, accompanied by a request for a full investigation into our findings, to the responsible government agencies: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Marine Mammal Commission.

The report was subsequently shared with Sea World executives, inviting them to respond to the concerns raised by our investigation. The few improvements to date—some of the Sea Worlds have instituted poolside commentary indicating that the feeding of wild dolphins is illegal, and periodic pool-bottom scans for dangerous foreign objects—have not dissuaded us from the conclusion that petting pools are unsafe for both humans and dolphins.

What you can do

Contact Sea World Vice President of Zoological Operations Brad Andrews, Anheuser-Busch Director of National Affairs Barbara Heffernan, APHIS Deputy Administrator Chester Gipson, and your members of Congress.

Ask Andrews and Heffernan to close the remaining three Sea World petting pools. Tell Gipson that you want stricter regulation of public display facilities in the United States. Call on your members of Congress to withdraw federal approval for all dolphin petting and feeding programs. And while you are at it, please ask your local travel agency not to promote facilities and packages that offer petting and feeding of captive or wild dolphins.

Contact information

Mr. Brad Andrews
Vice President of Zoological Operations
Sea World
7007 Sea World Dr.
Orlando, Florida 32821-8097
Fax: 407-345-5397

Ms. Barbara Heffernan
Director of National Affairs
Republic Place
1776 I St., NW, Suite 200
Washington, D.C. 20006
Fax: 202-223-9594

Dr. Chester Gipson
Deputy Administrator
4700 River Rd., Unit 84
Riverdale, MD 20737-1234
Fax: 301-734-4993

Your Senators
The Honorable ________
U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121

Your Representative
The Honorable ________
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121

Download the pdf for the Biting_The_Hand_That_Feeds.pdf.

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