|As Winter's Tale hits the Silver Screen, Misty remains alone in Taiji|
In December 2005, fisherman Jim Savage rescued a young dolphin entangled in a crab pot off the Canaveral National Shoreline in Florida. The two-month old dolphin was critically injured while trying to free herself. Savage freed the dolphin from the trap’s synthetic lines, but her injuries were far too serious to set her free. The animal was transported to Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA); a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the oceans via rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine life. Despite every effort on the part of CMA staff, the dolphin, soon to be known as “Winter” lost her injured tail and several vertebrae.
With constant care from CMA staff, Winter adapted and was able to swim without her flukes; however, CMA recognized that the dolphin needed a tail for long term survival. Kevin Carroll, a world famous prosthetist, heard Winter's story and offered to create a prosthetic tail. Carroll and fellow prosthetist Dan Strzempka worked for over a year to build the appendage. Not every human adapts successfully to a prosthetic. So what about a dolphin? Winter quickly adapted to her new silicone prosthetic tail, making her the first dolphin in history to wear a prosthetic! However, because of the device, she can never be released back into the ocean.
On September 23, the story of Winter will make its way to the Silver Screen courtesy of Warner Bros studios. Dolphin Tale features a star-studded cast including Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Kris Kristofferson and Nathan Gamble. The role of Winter is played by none other than the rescued dolphin.
While CMA has gone to heroic lengths to rehabilitate Winter, the fact remains that this dolphin, like thousands of others worldwide, is held in a tiny pool, has to work for a living, exists on a diet of dead fish and has no hope of ever seeing the ocean again. Winter spent long hours under hot lights filming “Dolphin Tale”. In general, the lives of captive dolphins are much shorter than their counterparts in the wild. As well-intended as CMA might be, a pool can never replace the ocean. Dolphins in captivity face ongoing stress caused by crowds of people and from being on constant display. One might hope that with all her earnings, CMA would provide Winter a real sanctuary somewhere on the coastline where she could feel the natural ocean rhythm again and escape from thousands of watchful eyes - rather than exploiting her as a tourist attraction.
In 2009, a documentary about dolphins won an Academy Award. Directed by Louie Psihoyos and starring Ric O’Barry, The Cove tells the tragic story of thousands of dolphins who are hunted by the fishing fleet of Taiji, Japan, and either slaughtered for meat or sold into captivity. Pods of dolphins are literally chased into a tiny cove where they await selection by trainers who then determine who shall live and who shall die. Those selected for captivity are moved into pens where their indoctrination into captivity begins. Over in the cove, the water turns from azure blue to blood red as the rest are slowly bludgeoned to death.
While Winter the Dolphin gets the celebrity treatment in honor of the movie release, across the world another captive dolphin by the name of “Misty” is believed to be held in isolation in a squalid pool at the Taiji, Japan Dolphin Base Resort. Misty was originally discovered in December 2010 by activists who were on the ground in Taiji to protest the slaughter and captivity of dolphins in the Cove. The animal was floating listlessly in a filthy backyard pool, just hours from death. Isolated due to a lung infection, Misty clung to a yellow buoy, the bottom of his shallow pool littered with rotting fish. Within hours the social media group “Save Misty the Dolphin” was formed on Facebook, and over the course of just a few days, thousands of calls were logged to Dolphin Base demanding better care for the sickly animal. In the early days of January, Misty was moved to a bigger, cleaner pool at Dolphin Base, but for months now advocates and concerned citizens have been prevented from accessing the lone dolphin in order to verify his health status and conditions of confinement.
The science on dolphin intelligence is definitive as researchers increasingly call for them to be considered as “non-human persons”. “In particular, the highly elaborated cingulate and insular cortex in cetacean brains are consistent with the idea that these animals are highly sophisticated and sensitive in the emotional and social emotional sophistication not achieved by other animals including humans” (Phil Brakes, and Mark Peter Simons, Whales and Dolphins Cognition, Culture, Conservation and Human Perception, Washington D.C,, Earthspan, 2011). Will Winter’s story enable people to accept dolphin intelligence and dolphin rights in non-human persons' status or will Dolphin Tale have the opposite effect; driving more customers through the doors of SeaWorld and other captive facilities where healthy dolphins, that could be living at home in the oceans with their families are instead imprisoned in small cement tanks far from family and the sounds of the ocean?
As we see in the 2011 documentary A Fall from Freedom, captivity is deadly for marine mammals. Dolphins live in captivity just a fraction of a typical life span. There is a clear link between drive fisheries, SeaWorld and other marine aquariums. When Iki island in Japan ended their drive fishery because of worldwide outcry, SeaWorld convinced them to continue. Just as trainers arrive these days in Taiji, Japan to select dolphins for captivity, notorious dolphin trafficker Jay Sweeney would arrive in Iki to pick the most attractive. The remaining pod, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, would be killed. Today no dolphins swim off the shores off Iki island. The pods native to the area are gone forever. In A fall from freedom we see Jay Sweeney, a founder of the International Marine Mammals Trainers Association, selecting dolphins and orcas during violent captures. The captive animals are shipped to aquariums all over the world. Very few captured marine mammals live more than a few years. Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium, is one exception. For over forty years she has been confined to a tiny pool, where she performs seven days a week. Concerned citizens have requested again and again that Lolita be released. Advocates have located Lolita’s family and offered to return her to the ocean covering all costs, but the aquarium has refused. Lolita, like Winter, is a box office success that continues to bring dollars into the aquarium.
Dolphin Tale, A Fall From Freedom, and The Cove have one commonality and that is they all compel us as humans to consider the concept of dolphins as individuals, as non-human persons. Winter overcame extraordinary obstacles many amputees never do to successfully manipulate an artificial limb. Each day more stories are told in the news of dolphins rescuing humans, and attempting to communicate with humans. If we could talk to Winter, what would she say? It is likely she would first thank her family at CMA. There is no doubt they love her like family. Might she go on to ask us to remember other dolphins of the world, those being impacted by pollution, those dying in fish nets and lines, and those being driven into the bloody Cove of Taiji, Japan, where prison or death waits? Hopefully the release of a Dolphin Tale will make the world sensitive to the tragic plight of marine mammals in captivity. Dolphins have so much to teach us. These are the people of the sea, and what we see in their eyes may be a reflection of our own.