Scientists at Emory University recently determined that the cognitive capacity of dolphins is second only to that of humans and that the brain cortex of dolphins has the same complicated folds associated with human intelligence.

A prominent ethicist believes that dolphins should be given the same moral standing as humans. We know that dolphins have distinct personalities, can recognize themselves in mirrors and can think about the future.

Yet dolphins are still captured from the wild to be put on display in aquariums, held captive in theme parks and used in “swim-with” programs. This must stop.

In their rightful ocean home, dolphins inhabit vast, fascinating and complex worlds. They establish close, cooperative and long-standing relationships. They live in large, intricate social groups, swim together in family pods and can cover up to 100 miles a day.

Dolphins communicate with each other through whistles and body language, and when they are injured or dying, other dolphins will come to their aid, supporting them at the water’s surface so that they can breathe. However, in tanks, their worlds are reduced to gallons instead of fathoms.

Aquariums and marine theme parks don’t view dolphins and other sea animals as unique individuals with specific needs and preferences; animals are considered interchangeable and replaceable. SeaWorld, which “owns” most of the captive bottlenose dolphins and orcas in the United States, routinely “replaces” animals who die prematurely. For example, SeaWorld has used more than 50 orcas named Shamu.

One thing that the profitable marine entertainment industry doesn’t want the public to know is that buying a ticket to a marine theme park helps support the slaughter of dolphins in the wild. Every year, thousands of dolphins are killed in bloody “drive fisheries” in Japan. While most end up as meat in Japanese supermarkets, each year, approximately two dozen captured dolphins are sold to marine parks and “swim-with” programs around the world. The considerable profit from those sales perpetuates the slaughter.

The vast majority of aquatic animals in captivity are taken from their ocean homes. From 1995 to 2004, Cuba alone captured and sold at least 140 bottlenose dolphins to marine “attractions.”

The mortality rate for dolphins and other captive marine life is high. Animals have become sick and have died from contaminated water and stress-related ulcers and from ingesting key chains, sunglasses and rocks that were tossed into their tanks. They’ve died while being treated for common ear and tooth infections. Former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry quit the business after the death of Flipper, his favorite “student,” believing that stress and depression contributed to the dolphin’s death.

Because official records are sketchy at best, there is no way of knowing for sure how many animals die in captivity. But since many gate-drawing animals such as orcas and bottlenose dolphins are covered by million-dollar insurance policies, even dead they bring in bucks.

It’s time to stop capturing and displaying dolphins for our amusement. These intelligent, social animals should not lose their freedom just so that we can watch them perform silly tricks. Families can help keep dolphins, whales and other aquatic animals in the oceans where they belong by refusing to patronize aquariums, “swim-with” programs and marine theme parks.

Jennifer O’Connor is an animals in entertainment campaign writer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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