Is it Right to Rescue?  Part 1:  The San Pedro Risso's Dolphin

“Wading Into Controversy”

On December 13th a juvenile Risso’s Dolphin was found stranded on the shore at Royal Palms Beach in San Pedro, CA. The young dolphin, a juvenile probably between one and two years old, was rescued initially by lifeguards with the LA County FD with help from some good Samaritans. It was then transported to the Marine Mammal Center at Fort MacArthur before being transferred to Sea World in San Diego. On December 16th, the dolphin passed away from as yet unknown causes (a necropsy is pending). 

 In the time between the rescue and the young dolphin’s passing I witnessed a microcosm of how people who love dolphins and whales follow through with their passions. But what started as an article about the reactions of people with strong opinions had a strong personal impact as I was forced to reexamine my own reasons for taking the stance that I chose. 

 Public commentary on the rescue and attempted rehabilitation of the young dolphin shed a very strong light on the division between people who are either for or against cetacean captivity. Both sides claim moral high ground in the debate, and both sides profess that the ultimate aim is conservation and protecting these beautiful animals for generations to come. Despite these similar claimed goals, the division could not be any further apart. For those people who try to walk the fine line in between, there is very little common ground. 

When news of the stranding broke, people weighed in on websites that offer public commentary. Some supported the efforts made by the beleaguered park’s multimillion dollar wildlife rescue and rehabilitations program and others were quick to decry the announcement and accused Sea World of looking for a way to acquire new specimens. Sea World supporters lauded the company’s wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts, and detractors lamented the fact that one of the most infamous animal attractions in the United States would be placed in charge of this animal’s care. 

Personally, the issue was rather muddy for me. Without question I wanted that dolphin to have every opportunity to survive and eventually return to the ocean, but I am firmly against the keeping of cetaceans in captivity for profits and amusement. Could I support the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of this animal by Sea World knowing that the money for its care was earned off of the same captivity that I publically campaign against?  

 “Dispute and Debate” 

Most of the vitriol towards Sea World comes from the keeping of cetaceans, especially Orcas, in captivity. The controversy has been ongoing for many years but there has been much fallout from the popular documentary “Blackfish”. “Blackfish” sought to expose the reality of how these animals fare in the aquarium environment. David Kirby’s book “Death at Sea World” was also very influential, as it drew some important connections between Orcas in captivity and human deaths attributed to a male Orca named Tilikum. 

 Resentment towards Sea World has contributed to declines in revenue and increased scrutiny. There are also possible connections between Sea World’s acquisition of new specimens and the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, where a select number of the hunted dolphins are kept and sold into captivity instead of being butchered for meat. 

 As the juvenile Risso’s Dolphin was transferred to San Diego, there was outcry. Along with the natural fears that Sea World would keep the animal, it is known that Risso’s Dolphin fare even worse in captivity than other species of dolphin, which do not do well to begin with. Although Sea World would not allow keeping the animal without explicit permission from National Marine Fisheries or NOAA, they have made multiple attempts to circumvent rules regarding the importing and acquisition of marine mammals before. I do not fault anyone for making this conclusion, it’s reasonable. 

 However, Sea World’s San Diego facilities are one of very few places on the US West Coast where cetacean veterinary care and rehabilitation are even possible. There is no other place in Southern California with large enough facilities, veterinarians with hands on dolphin experience, and the financial resources for what could have been a long term of care. When the dolphin was found it was suffering from superficial injuries, dehydration, malnourishment and showed signs of other unseen ailments.

 Although there are many hard working nonprofit Marine Mammal Centers in California worthy of praise, the rehabilitation facilities they operate are more suited for pinnipeds, making Sea World perhaps the only feasible option for this animal in the short term. If there is another place anywhere within a thousand miles I am unaware of it. For those people against Sea World and cetacean captivity, the question became: “Given a choice between the two, is it better for Sea World to save the dolphin or to allow the dolphin to die?”  

“Making Sense of Circumstances” 

I love dolphins. I respect them for their intelligence, grace, speed, and power. But what I really admire most is their emotional capacity that matched by few other species. Over generations, dolphins of different species have developed different ways of life that conform to our human definitions of culture. 

 I didn’t think that, in good conscience, I could advocate for the death of one of these animals when there was still a chance it could be saved. I decided to try and navigate the gray area, to publically wish well for the dolphin’s recovery and hopeful release while decrying Sea World’s cetacean captivity. I thought that the fragile life of this dolphin could provide common ground and that people could be encouraged towards promoting a new business model for Sea World parks. Anti-captivity activists could encourage the park to phase out cetaceans in their collection and supporters could continue to tout the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. Why can’t there be a win/win scenario? 

To put it simply, it’s just not that easy. The fine line I thought I was walking turned out to be more like a rope bridge like one would see in the movies, with missing pieces and flimsy steps ready to spill a pedestrian into a treacherous fall. 

 As a good friend who I asked to review my initial draft told me, “For me its way more cut and dry than for you.” This person’s take on my analysis of the gray area in this argument reminded me why I began advocating against cetacean captivity in the first place, reminding me of the emotional and physical trauma endured by these animals, and the extreme lengths that Sea World goes to in order to have these animals compliant enough to do performances and produce offspring that will only know the same way of life. I have never questioned those facts, but it did cause me to rethink my position even after publically stating it. What if the dolphin had survived but was deemed non releasable, would I still think it had been worth it? 

You can call me weak, but I would still say that I would want to see the little one saved. If it was deemed non releasable, it would have been sickening and heartbreaking, but I would also want to fight for that dolphin’s chance to see the ocean again one day. If it had been saved but deemed non releasable, would I rather have seen it euthanized as opposed to kept in a concrete tank? Ultimately the animal makes its own decision by how its body responds to care and treatment, and I simply cannot tell anyone how to feel answering such a heartbreaking question.

 But I can tell you that it is disappointing that the only facility with the means to provide for these stranded animals in California is a for profit corporation with a massive conflict of interest when it comes to seeing these animals released into the wild. I can also tell you that I feel there is hypocrisy in funding the conservation of wild animals on the blood of endangered animals stolen from the wild. 

 In order for Sea World to change, they will have to want to change; I am sincerely hoping that the pressure they are under right now convinces them to do so before too long. I want the anti-captivity advocates to continue to apply pressure and make good solid arguments that these animals can’t be kept for entertainment anymore. I want this, because the next time a little dolphin washes up on the beach in San Pedro, it would be nice not to have to worry about what happens when someone comes to save it. 

Contact the author with your questions, critiques, and comments at dalefrink@gmail.com.