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Captivity Issue Catches Aquariums

Baltimore's Marine Mammal Pavilion is the focus of a debate over sea animal treatment

By Laurel Shaper WaltersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 1991


GASPS of awe fill the sparkling-new amphitheater here at the National Aquarium as two bottlenose dolphins shoot out of the water and sail gracefully through the air in tandem. The dolphins easily wow the small crowd; their indelible smiles are infectious. But some animal-rights activists and conservationists aren't smiling about the growing numbers of these marine mammals being held in captivity. The explosive popularity of aquariums over the past decade has sparked controversy.

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About 350 bottlenose dolphins are now captive in the United States, says Nancy Daves of the Animal Protection Institute, based in Sacramento, Calif. ``Going out and capturing dolphins from the wild is an activity whose time has come and gone,'' Ms. Daves says. ``There are enough of them in aquariums at this point.'' Aquariums should set up cooperative breeding programs to help fill the demand for dolphins with captive-born animals, Daves suggests.

Animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argue that dolphins never should have been taken into captivity in the first place. ``We're opposed to any type of exploitation of animals,'' says Ann Chynoweth, national outreach coordinator for PETA in Rockville, Md. ``Aquariums take marine animals that typically swim thousands of miles [a year] and force them to live in closets. They live very stressful lives.''

All sides of this debate profess the same goal: educating the public about marine life and the need to preserve it. But aquarium advocates and animal-welfare groups disagree on how best to achieve that end.

The National Aquarium recently completed this $35 million Marine Mammal Pavilion, which is now home to five bottlenose dolphins and three beluga whales. The aquarium is owned by the city and operated by a nonprofit corporation. Aquarium officials and supporters say the new facility and the animals it houses are powerful partners in an effort to educate the public.

``Our heart and soul for existence is to draw people in so we can teach them,'' says Nicholas Brown, the aquarium's executive director. ``We tempt them through the recreational and entertainment side and try to inspire them and instruct them about the conservation-education side.''

``People can be educated through films and other means,'' counters Jenny Woods, outreach manager for PETA.

During the opening celebrations of the new facility here, animal-rights activists from several organizations gathered outside the National Aquarium carrying signs proclaiming, ``Dolphins Die in Captivity.''

``We wanted to be there because a lot of people who love animals go to the aquarium,'' says Ms. Chynoweth of PETA. ``But what we want to let them know is that this is not how marine mammals live naturally and that there are other ways to show your appreciation for animals.''

PETA supports the idea of teaching children respect for animals and encouraging an interest in science, Chynoweth says. ``But,'' she insists, ``they are not going to learn respect for animals or our environment by seeing these beautiful marine mammals in sterile bathtubs.''

AQUARIUM professionals give the new facility high marks. ``The National Aquarium at Baltimore is without question one of the finest aquariums in North America. There's no question, it's state-of-the-art,'' says David Jenkins, deputy director of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums in Bethesda, Md.