Ric O’Barry is a reformed dolphin activist who has been working for the past 40+ years to stop dolphin captivity. In the 1960s, he captured and trained dolphins for the Miami Seaquarium, including the five shown in the “Flipper” TV series. It is partly due to his work for the show that dolphin captivity became popular. He began to feel queasiness over his profession midway through the show’s span, but it was at the death of his favorite dolphin, Kathy, that he realized what he had been doing was wrong.
Dolphins are self-aware, intelligent, social and sentient creatures that have adapted perfectly to ocean life. The process of capturing them involves chasing them to exhaustion, separating the mothers from the babies, and then taking the healthiest, youngest dolphins and putting them into steel, chlorinated tanks. In tanks, they live a life of boredom and a life against their biological nature. Their sonar systems become useless and conflicting as the beams bounce off the tank walls. They are often separated from each other and are made hungry to perform flips.
It was such an existence that prompted Kathy, Ric’s bonded dolphin, to die. After being retired from performing, she was isolated away from people and other dolphins. She became sick and listless and Ric watched as she intentionally held her breath to drown. The experience was heartbreaking and is one he still has trouble talking about. Ever since, he has been a self-proclaimed “dolphin abolitionist” – he wants to abolish the practice of putting dolphins in tanks.
Ric says “the captivity experience only serves to perpetuate our insidious, utilitarian perception of nature.” “It teaches us that dominance is good. Dominance is right, dominance works and that’s the problem.” He cites money as one of the continuing forces pushing that mindset. There is a lot of money in the dolphin captivity industry (think of all the aquariums throughout the United States) and the United States Department of Commerce, which is supposed to protect dolphins, also promotes business. He thus believes that the only real way to improve conditions for dolphins is by educating the public and putting external pressure on the industry to change its practices.
One of his education efforts was the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove. Filmed undercover in Taiji, Japan, the documentary exposes the brutal killing sprees that take place every year for six months and result in thousands of dolphins slaughtered. The dolphins that aren’t killed for meat (or because they’re competing for fish) end up in captivity in aquariums around the world. Before the film was made, Ric had trouble attracting media attention on the dolphin hunts. After the film was produced, however, he had media following him around and was able to gather 2 million signatures worldwide against the hunts.
Ric has also sought an audience through his Animal Planet miniseries Blood Dolphin$ and two books, Behind the Dolphin Smile and To Free A Dolphin. His strategy is fluid (he often arrives without a plan in mind) but he remains focused on the goal of rescuing dolphins and ensuring them their natural lives in the wild. He works to rehabilitate captive dolphins for their return to the ocean and showcases his work with his website Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project. He advocates that “dolphins are free-ranging, intelligent, and complex wild animals, and they belong in the oceans, not playing the clown in our human schemes.” Peer Paul Watson notes that Ric’s devotion demonstrates that:
You don’t retire from this movement…He’s the kind of person who changes the world. That’s the only thing that changes the world – individual passion. Governments don’t change things. Big organizations don’t change things. Individuals change things.
While I haven’t yet seen The Cove, it seems logical to me that watching the film and visiting the Dolphin Project website are the first places to learn more about the issue of dolphin captivity. Choosing not to attend dolphin performances and voicing opposition to dolphin captivity in US aquariums is one way we as individuals can exert some influence. Ric also posts petitions on his website as well as new campaigns his team is working on around the world. Although his entrance into the cause was tragic, Ric certainly appears to have made amends with his past- and indeed, it seems he is an individual without whom many dolphins would have little hope.