Empty the Tanks protest at Indianapolis Zoo 

Joel Kerr, Doug Ross, and Leslie Holding protest dolphin captivity at the Indianapolis Zoo. - LORI LOVELY
  • Joel Kerr, Doug Ross, and Leslie Holding protest dolphin captivity at the Indianapolis Zoo.
  • Lori Lovely

Many drivers passing by honked in support of the approximately 50 activists gathered outside the entrance to the Indianapolis Zoo to take part in the second annual worldwide Empty the Tanks public awareness campaign. A less positive reaction came from some of the vehicles entering the zoo. Undeterred, the group brandished signs and inflatable dolphins to spread their message about the plight of dolphins in captivity.

Joel Kerr, executive director of the Indiana Animal Rights Alliance, said he hoped the demonstration would encourage people to "think twice about [dolphin captivity] from a different perspective."

"If we can make one person think about what they're doing, it's worth it," added demonstrator Doug Ross.

Origins of the movement

The movement was founded last year by Rachel Carbary after her experience as a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Cove Guardian in Taiji, Japan, where she joined in the stand against the Taiji Dolphin Drive in which hundreds of bottlenose dolphins are slaughtered or captured for the entertainment industry - including zoos and marine parks. Since its founding, the movement has spread to 20 countries, where 41 simultaneous demonstrations took place on May 24.

Carbary advocates releasing captive marine mammals either to the wild, if possible, or retiring them to sea pens, where they can live in natural sea water. She makes a case for them on her website: "These entertainment parks have no place in the 21st century. We know the level of awareness these animals have. We know their social connections, their eating habits, and natural wild behaviors. These are incredibly social, intelligent beings that are being used to make money. It is animal slavery, and it needs to be brought to the general public's attention."

Health and welfare

Nine Atlantic bottlenose dolphins reside in approximately 2 ½ million gallons of water at the Indianapolis Zoo. According to a prepared statement released by the zoo, the dolphins "receive an extraordinarily high level of care. We have a full-time Ph.D. nutritionist, one of the highest ratios of veterinarians per animal in the nation and an experienced marine mammal staff."

Activists reject the claim that dolphins, which swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild, can ever be healthy in captivity.

"A concrete tank can never replace their ocean home," according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation website, an international charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins. "The mental, emotional and physical stress that a captive whale or dolphin suffers can weaken their immune system and make them prone to disease. Even though captive whales and dolphins are kept in an environment free of predators, pollution and other threats, they die young."

Half of all captured dolphins die within their first two years of captivity, with survivors living an average of 5 years in captivity compared to an average age of 45 years in the wild, according to Be As One Foundation, a grassroots conservation non-profit founded on the principles of engagement, community action, research and innovative solutions to environmental issues. Be As One statistics indicate that every seven years, half of all dolphins in captivity die from capture shock, pneumonia, intestinal disease, ulcers, chlorine poisoning, immune system dysfunction from chronic stress and other stress-related illnesses.

A study by Stefan Austermühle, executive director of Mundo Azul, an organization founded in 1999 to protect marine and aquatic biodiversity, found that between 1967 and 1994 a total of 193 cetaceans had been held in captivity in Germany. By 1994 only 33 were still alive. None of them survived 20 years in captivity.

Baby crazy

The statistics for captive-born dolphins buttress claims that captive animals are not as healthy as their wild counterparts. The natural mortality rate for bottlenose dolphins within their first year of life in the wild is 20 percent, but according to a U.S. Marine Mammal Inventory Report conducted between 1960 and 1993, more than 50 percent of the dolphins born in captivity perish within the first four months of life (133 of 261 animals). This figure doesn't include miscarriages and abortions, as U.S. law doesn't require facilities to register those.

Four of the Indy Zoo's dolphins were born there. However, Leslie Holding, a local demonstrator who accompanied the Sea Shepherd in the Pacific Northwest to oppose the branding and killing of sea lions, points out that there have been 26 baby dolphin deaths, still-births or miscarriages at the Indy Zoo since 1988, as verified by Ceta-Base.com, a database of captive cetaceans. Holding blames stress from captivity.

Judy Palermo, public relations senior manager for the Indianapolis Zoo, responds: "The cause of newborn death can vary with dolphins - in one case, it was a maternal incompetence in nursing the calf."

Blaming the mothers is ridiculous, Holding insists. "There is clearly something about the zoo that is not helping calves survive there. When there are 26 dead baby dolphins compared to only 4 that have lived, [it] indicates a huge problem with breeding in captivity. It shows that captivity is killing these dolphins. They should end the breeding program. No more deaths. Stop forcing these mothers to continually grieve over their dead calves. The deaths are on the Indianapolis Zoo for continually breeding these dolphins, knowing the odds of death are so great in captivity."

German veterinarian Christina Schnug cites "... the lack of milk in the mothers, as well as the lack of correct behavior when providing milk by the inexperienced mothers" as reasons for the high death rate in captivity.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals, an organization fighting animal cruelty, associates poor performance of such duties as an indication of loss of culture.

"All dolphins in captivity are prevented ... from learning and expressing natural behaviors," according to the society's website. "It is becoming increasingly clear that 'culture' is exceedingly important to dolphins: Mothers teach specific skills to offspring and juveniles learn other behaviors via imitation of other pod mates. Culture is lost in captivity or, at best, is replaced by an artificial culture with no evolutionary or ecological basis."

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