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Op-Ed: The cost of captivity — ball removed from dolphin's stomach

By Elizabeth Batt     Jan 21, 2012 in Environment
Nanjing - Doctors at a Jiangsu Province aquarium in Nanjing, issued an emergency plea yesterday for someone with long arms to retrieve a ball swallowed by a performing dolphin. The ball has now been successfully removed, but at what cost?
The SOS issued yesterday by Nanjing Andover Underwater World, came after one of its performing dolphins swallowed his toy volleyball on Wednesday. Five-year-old Jiang Bo was playing with the ball, when he was observed taking it underwater and then resurfacing without it.
Attempts to remove the ball had been unsuccessful, forcing Chinese doctors to issue a plea for help from someone with long arms. Eventually, it was removed and the operation was hailed a success. Others however, saw it simply as another sad side-effect of marine mammal captivity. What this dolphin endured during the entire process, was nothing short of horrific, considering he was awake.
Although advanced somewhat, "veterinary care for cetaceans is still relatively primitive" said Humane Society International (HSI) in its 2008 report, "The Case Against Marine Mammal Captivity." The society added that although possible, administering anesthesia to cetaceans "is extremely risky" and only used "as a last resort."
As human beings, we breathe involuntarily and if we choose not to breathe, the body will take in air automatically. Whales and dolphins however, are conscious breathers and must decide when to breathe. This means they have to be conscious. Such was the case with Jiang Bo, who was sedated but awake, during the multiple attempts to remove the ball from his stomach.
Taking into consideration how difficult it could be for an incision to heal, doctors were reluctant to surgically remove Jiang Bo's obstruction. Instead, the ball, while still inside the dolphin's stomach, had a small hole burned into it in the hope that it could be retrieved by a hook. When this failed, they tied a rope to it and attempted to pull it out. The rope broke.
At this point, said the Shanghai Daily, a call was issued for someone with arms that measured at least 1.1 meters to render their services by reaching in and grabbing the ball. Expertise in marine mammals or their health animal was not required, all that was needed, was long arms.
Enter Meng Da, a professional basketball player with a Jiangsu Province club, who tendered the use of his arms but failed in his attempt to reach into the dolphin's stomach. Not to be thwarted, doctors then called on 7'5" Zhang Mengyong, the tallest man in the province and placed him on standby should a last ditch attempt at retrieving the ball fail.
With the aid of medical steel wire, the ball was finally removed in a three-hour-long operation that was expected to last 30 minutes. Poor Jiang Bo was awake throughout. An official with the aquarium today told the Shanghai newspaper, "we can say that Jiang Bo's life is no longer at risk [...] "but of course he will require long-term recovery treatment. We'll give him post-operation care and adjust his diet."
This wasn't the first time China has called on a person with long arms to help its captive dolphins. In 2006, reported the AP, the world's tallest man reached in and saved two dolphins by pulling out plastic from their stomachs, at an aquarium in Liaoning province. Not all of the plastic was removed. Zhu Xiaoling, a local doctor, appeared unconcerned at the time and said, "the dolphins will be able to digest these and are expected to recover soon."
One might consider what happened with Jiang Bo, a rare and momentous event. Unfortunately, it is far more common than many captive marine mammal facilities are prepared to admit. It is just one, of several, side-effects of captivity.
Jiang Bo for example, was bought from Japan, a country which engages in drive fishing and captures wild dolphins for the marine mammal entertainment industry. The town affiliated the most with Japan's dolphin drives, is Taiji, in the Wakayama Prefecture.
Taiji issues over 2,000 permits each year allowing the Taiji Fisheries Union to drive dolphins into a natural cove with the aid of motorized drive boats. Once netted off, a select few are sold to captive marine facilities around the world. The remainder are slaughtered for meat.
Between 2002 and 2008, reports Japan's Elsa Nature Conservancy, China has imported 99 dolphins from Taiji, meaning that Jiang Bo could have been one of them, particularly as Futo in Japan, a town also engaged in dolphin drives, ceased its hunts in 2005.
Bo, at five-years-old, was born two years after the drive cessation in Futo, meaning he could very well be a Taiji dolphin. Transactions surrounding dolphins sold from Taiji remain a covert affair. This particular dolphin could have been purchased from Dolphin Base, a training facility in Taiji, or from the Taiji Whale Museum. A third option is Dolphin Resort in Taiji, which, said Elsa, has been "in recent years, [...] very active in [...the..] dolphin trading business." All three facilities regularly purchase captured wild dolphins which have been trapped in the cove in Taiji.
A wild-caught dolphin faces a terrible transition to captivity. Used to eating live fish, it must now learn to eat dead fish, going against their own natural instinct. Those dolphins whose refuse to feed may be restrained and force fed, via tube or an arm, until it learns to accept being hand fed a diet of dead fish.
Frozen fish as with many frozen foods, loses its nutrients, a fact readily admitted by the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Florida. Thus, dolphin diets must be supplemented with vitamins and minerals which are often stuffed inside of fish to make them palatable.
Through the use of food rewards as reinforcement, the dolphin trainer turns a once independent ocean cetacean, perfectly capable of meeting its own needs in the wild, into a human dependent mammal. These programs, classed as research and education, are then sold to the public as swim-with-dolphin or entertainment programs.
What dolphin in the wild would willingly choose to enter captivity? These are highly social cetaceans who forms bonds with pod mates and in many cases, fellow family members, that last for years. Able to swim up to 40 miles in one day, and capable of diving to depths of more than 1, 640 feet, they are ripped from their pods and placed in a tank. In Taiji, these dolphins must also bear witness to their pod being killed about them, forcing untold stress onto the mammals.
The dolphin's will to survive after capture, is used to create a conditioned response that increases its dependence upon humans as it acclimates to the confines and consequences of captive life. According to Humane Society International, "chronic, cumulative, unnecessary, and unacceptable levels of stress" is placed on the mammal, the consequences of which, lead to the regular administering of "prophylactic antibiotics and ulcer medications."
Diseases born from a captive environment also take a toll on cetaceans, bacterial infections are common and heavily chlorinated water damages their eyes. The ingestion of artificial items, such as the ball in Jiang Bo's case, is not a rare event. Dolphins kept at Dolphin Base in Taiji for example, are kept in tiny netted sea pens, which they chew on out of sheer boredom. These foreign objects must be retrieved by hand when swallowed, to prevent the dolphin from dying.
The removal of the ball from Jiang Bo, may have saved his life, but it is not to be celebrated. This majestic marine mammal was forced to endure three hours of doctor's efforts while awake, just so he can perform again for an adoring public. Unfortunately, in our desire to seek affinity with these impressive creatures of the sea, we have become as equally conditioned to captivity and marine park entertainment facilities, as the dolphins themselves. Ours however, is a choice; theirs is not.
The aquarium that houses Jiang Bo, "was jointly invested by Andover Capital Group and Administration Bureau of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum in 1994," says Andover The aquarium displays more than 200 species and about 10,000 individual aquatic animals and is the largest public aquarium in Eastern China and the first inland public aquarium built in China.
It offers several interactive programs with its animals including shark feeding, a dolphin interactive program, the hand feeding of fur seals, spotted seals, a polar bear and arctic wolf. It even caters to the wedding crowd with couples encouraged to get married, in an underwater wedding ceremony.
For further information on dolphins in captivity and how they get there, watch Blue's, "The Truth About Dolphin Captivity."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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