On the sunny Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, a small group of children gingerly pet Shaka under her trainer's watchful eye. Shaka is part of Dolphin Quest, a swim-with-dolphins encounter program that delights tourists from here to Bermuda.
In the confines of a 2 million-gallon seawater lagoon at a luxurious hotel, the program's 11 bottlenose dolphins seem happy to interact with the children.
But the picture-perfect scene belies a long-standing dispute over the morality of keeping dolphins like Shaka in captivity.
In a bid to address animal-rights concerns over the programs, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) this month introduced a new set of rules governing the industry. Critics, however, claim the new policies have only made matters worse.
The regulations fill a legal loophole that opened up in 1994 when the USDA took jurisdiction over the programs. The department has set a 3-to-1 interaction ratio for people to dolphins and has outlined standards for veterinary care. "We think [the rules] are reasonable, rational, well thought out, and based on scientific expertise," says Ron DeHaven, acting deputy administrator from the USDA's animal-care program.
But animal-rights activists are angry the USDA has extended the programs to include whales and other dolphin species besides the bottlenose - "something we most definitely didn't want to happen," says Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal expert from the Humane Society of the United States.
The HSUA is considering mounting a legal challenge to try to stop the programs.
The industry, however, says the regulations have become too restrictive and impractical.
The rules now not only cover swimming with dolphins, but also scuba diving, wading, and snorkeling with them. "They limit our flexibility to provide innovative programs in the future," says Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.
AS the number of these programs grows across the US and the globe, activists charge the USDA with promoting the industry at the expense of caring for the dolphins. The department "seems to see its primary constituent as the industry and not the animals themselves," says Ms. Rose, who claims the US is failing to protect dolphins from the stress of public interaction. The animals often show "abnormal behavior," she says, such as pacing, swimming in circles, and rubbing their chins raw.
Furthermore, the programs ignore crucial safety issues, activists argue. "The public has been misled by the Flipper image," says Trevor Spradlin of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). "The bottom line is, these are wild animals and they should be treated with respect." While there have been no recent claims of serious injuries during dolphin-interaction sessions, studies by the NMFS have found the animals sometimes behave aggressively toward humans.
The industry counters that the programs do not harm the dolphins and serve as an important public-education tool. Ms. Menard says no dolphin or human has been injured in the programs since the USDA began regulating the industry in 1994.
Jeff Smith, from Dolphin Quest Hawaii, recalls his initial reservations about programs in which animals are placed under human care. But "after I was here for a week, I saw what love and attention these animals get," he says. "These animals are taken care of better than most humans take care of themselves."