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Dolphin shows belong in the history books

January 9, 2017 by Mehreen Faruqi  

The Sydney Morning Herald

Growing up in Pakistan, my favourite show wasFlipper. Living in a city a thousand kilometres from the nearest ocean, it was the most I knew about our beautiful dolphin friends.

It wasn't until I moved to Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid North Coast that I truly appreciated the magnificence of these animals in the wild.

Bottlenose dolphins Bucky and Zippy perform at Dolphin Marine Magic Park in Coffs Harbour.Bottlenose dolphins Bucky and Zippy perform at Dolphin Marine Magic Park in Coffs Harbour.

And it wasn't until I started researching dolphin captivity that I realised that the happy Flipper of my youth was actually five majestic animals imprisoned in the Miami Seaquarium.

Dolphins are highly intelligent animals, with complex physical and behavioural needs. In the wild, they live in intricate social networks, and are migratory - capable of ranging over hundreds of kilometres in the open ocean.

Captive environments are simply incapable of meeting their needs, and can severely impact their health and welfare. Dolphins can suffer psychologically in confinement, resulting in behavioural abnormalities and high rates of mortality.

In short, captivity can drive dolphins mad, but the illusion of animal happiness in captivity still endures.

Fortunately, though, the confinement and public exhibition of dolphins has slowly petered out around Australia, with the number of dolphinariums steadily declining since the 1980s.

In New South Wales, the sole relic of dolphin captivity is Dolphin Marine Magic at Coffs Harbour, which is perhaps most famous for providing free "dolphin kisses"to visitors.

Spectators get up close with bottlenose dolphins Bucky and Zippy at Dolphin Marine Magic Park in Coffs Harbour.Spectators get up close with bottlenose dolphins Bucky and Zippy at Dolphin Marine Magic Park in Coffs Harbour.

Coffs Harbour has glorious beaches, captivating national parks and the third largest marine protected area in New South Wales. So why do people watch dolphins swim in glorified swimming pools, when just a few hundred metres away there are dolphins swimming freely in the ocean?

I understand that there may be some appeal in swimming with dolphins or receiving a "kiss". I have no doubt that many of the people who visit the facility believe they are connecting with nature.

But dolphins are not here to perform in shows, be confined in undersized tanks, or give humans kisses. They don't exist for our amusement or entertainment.

The more you look into this archaic practice, the murkier it gets.

Dolphin Marine Magic operates with a pool that is smaller than legally required, and is only able to do so because the Department of Primary Industries has granted an exemption from the standards.

Further, dolphin calf Ji Ling died there in October 2015 and a full autopsy report has yet to be released. It only emerged after repeated questioning that he fell sick after swallowing leaves, sticks and a small piece of metal, and had a heart attack after an untrained staff member attempted to manually remove the litter from his stomach.

The premature death of Ji Ling raises real questions about the quality of care being provided to dolphins at Dolphin Marine Magic, and should ring the death knell for this outdated industry.

But of course, it isn't as simple as closing down the park overnight. The five remaining dolphins have lived at Dolphin Marine Magic for years and they cannot simply be released into the wild.

But we owe them more than to wait out their days confined in tanks. In the US, the National Aquarium in Baltimore is taking its dolphins out of tanks and releasing them into a sea sanctuary to live out the rest of their lives.

Barcelona has recently announced a similar move.

While Dolphin Marine Magic plays a role in the recovery of injured or stranded sea animals, it seems absurd to suggest that we can only protect and rehabilitate sea animals if we force some of them into captivity to perform shows.

Rather, the facility could be converted into a genuine rescue and rehabilitation operation. After all, these exist across the rest of the country without dolphin shows. And, since bottlenose dolphins are not an endangered species in Australia, there is no need for captive breeding.

As our understanding and appreciation of the lives of animals grows, so does the realisation that dolphinariums operate primarily as tourist attractions, and cannot meet both objectives of conservation and animal welfare.

Port Macquarie, a place I lived and worked in for many years, had a dolphinarium that closed in 1989. That site is now covered in parklands, which thousands of tourists visit every year, many to see dolphins swimming in the open ocean.

There is no reason that Coffs Harbour couldn't do the same. A stone's throw away from Dolphin Marine Magic is the Solitary Islands Marine Park.

The NSW government should be investing in eco-tourism which will generate far more jobs than a dolphin show ever could.

This is why MPs from Labor and the Animal Justice Party have joined me in a proposal to end dolphin captivity in NSW, and to begin this transition.

The splendour of watching dolphins in their natural environment far outweighs keeping an animal born to swim the oceans within four walls for our entertainment.

Dolphins belong in the ocean, and dolphin shows in the history books.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi MLC is a Greens NSW MP and spokesperson for animal welfare.

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