What you’ll need: whistle, wetsuit

Songlist: The Dolphin’s Cry by Live

Further reading: Behind the Dolphin Smile by Ric O’Barry

The Minnesota Zoo recently shocked the populace by announcing that the dolphin exhibit will soon close permanently and the remaining two dolphins transferred to other social groups. So great was the outrage that several hundred people signed petitions and joined a Facebook group called “Save the Dolphins at the MN Zoo” (ah, grassroots movements at their finest). The Minneapolis Star Tribune article quoted several disappointed patrons, who were confused about why the zoo would close one of their most popular exhibits and hoped they would reconsider.

I am somewhat conflicted about this decision. When I was a kid, the dolphin show was the highlight of any visit to the zoo. Watching the brightly ponytailed trainers in their wetsuits signaling tricks to the dolphins and patting them on the nose afterwards, I thought there could be no better job. You get to be pals with the coolest mammals out there, and all you have to do is wave your hands around (and feed them fish–I wasn’t as excited about that part).

When I worked at a local school two years ago, I chaperoned a trip to the zoo with a group of third-graders. Some of them were already to the point of not being impressed by anything, and yet they couldn’t help squealing with excitement when they got splashed by a back-flipping dolphin. Dolphins somehow seem totally chill while also being awe-inspiring. You can’t not love them.

Which makes it even more difficult to hear that 6 dolphins have died at the Minnesota Zoo in the past 6 years. It’s not that the Minnesota Zoo has intentionally mistreated their animals, it’s just that dolphins don’t do well in captivity. As many have noted, a dolphin enclosed in a tank is equivalent to a human being trapped in a hall of mirrors–they navigate primarily through sonar, and thus all of their echolocation bounces off tank walls and back to them. Just imagine how crazy you’d go if all you ever saw was your own reflection.

I probably would not have given any thought to the plight of dolphins in captivity if not for the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. The films centers around Ric O’Barry, progenitor of all dolphin trainers-cum-marine activist. O’Barry trained dolphins for the 1960s show Flipper, and was profoundly affected when the primary actress, a dolphin named Kathy, swam into his arms and ceased to breathe. Since dolphins need oxygen to live but are not involuntary breathers like us, O’Barry took this as an act of suicide. From that moment on, he has devoted his life to freeing dolphins in captivity.

So, as much as I would love to have dolphins nearby to go hang out with, I hope that Minnesota’s dolphins find a better home elsewhere.  For all those “Save the Dolphins” protesters: moving them elsewhere might be doing just that.

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