Studio Gang/AP
This artist rendering, provided by Studio Gang, shows the proposed seaside dolphin sanctuary by the National Aquarium in Baltimore. On Tuesday, the aquarium announced plans to retire multiple dolphins into a seaside sanctuary by the end of 2020.

National Aquarium announces dolphin retirement amid national sea change

The Baltimore Aquarium is heeding pressure on zoos and entertainment centers across the country to more humanely care for captive animals.

In an unprecedented move for the marine mammal industry, Baltimore’s National Aquarium announced Tuesday it will retire all of its dolphins to a seaside sanctuary by the end of 2020.

The move comes amid a sea change in the way Americans view the use of captive animals for education and entertainment, creating mounting consumer pressure on zoos, animal theme parks, and circuses to find more humane ways to care for animals. The National Aquarium's decision to establish a protected habitat is the most ambitious response to that pressure yet.

"There's no model anywhere, that we're aware of, for this," John Racanelli, chief executive officer for the National Aquarium, told the Associated Press in an interview ahead of Tuesday's announcement. "We're pioneering here, and we know it's neither the easiest nor the cheapest option."

Full-time staff will continue to care for the dolphins in the sanctuary. The National Aquarium will also maintain "excellent water quality,” isolation pools for medical care or temporary refuge from harmful conditions, and barriers to stop breeding among the dolphins or mingling with wild dolphins, Mr. Racanelli told the AP.

Seven of the National Aquarium’s eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were born in captivity. Only the oldest, a 44-year-old female, was captured from the ocean. The dolphins stopped performing scheduled shows in 2012, when the aquarium phased in a more open-ended exhibit, allowing the dolphins to behave more naturally rather than perform crowd-pleasing stunts.

Baltimore Aquarium’s latest announcement follows a broader trend toward more compassionate care for animals in the entertainment sectors.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced in March that it would stop collecting orca whales from the wild and end its breeding program, making the current generation the last to be housed in its theme parks. Conservationists attribute SeaWorld’s willingness to invest in more humane treatment of their animals to a shift in public attitudes, as Jessica Mendoza previously reported for The Christian Science Monitor. SeaWorld also committed to phasing out live shows for the orcas in their parks and pledged $5 million over five years for rescue and rehabilitation efforts for marine animals in crisis.

“At the root of it is an emerging consciousness among consumers/voters. They’re demanding more from decisionmakers and wanting companies to do better on animal welfare,” Wayne Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), told the Monitor in March. 

SeaWorld’s decision to phase out whales followed years of declining attendance, protests, and the loss of a marketing partnership with Southwest Airlines.

“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world's largest marine mammals,” SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create.”

A similar customer mood shift prompted the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to announce in March 2015 that it would retire its elephant act by 2018. And zoos, too, are taking note, searching out more ethical alternatives to humanely care for their largest, and often most popular animals, such as elephants.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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