Op-Ed: Captive cetacean attacks — How common are they?

Posted Dec 7, 2012 by Elizabeth Batt
Much has been made in the media over the eight-year-old girl recently bitten by a dolphin participating in a feeding program at SeaWorld. But how common are cetacean attacks committed by mammals kept in captivity?
Jamie Thomas/Still shot
Whether they occur deliberately or incidentally, accidents between captive cetaceans and the humans who interact with them do happen. This past week, two of those events were featured prominently across global media platforms.
The first involved eight-year-old Jillian Thomas who was feeding a dolphin at SeaWorld Orlando when it partially launched out of the water and grabbed the girl's hand. Video of the incident captured by the girl's parents, soon went viral and sparked debates over the lack of regulation regarding feeding or petting pools and swim with the dolphin programs (SWTDs).
News of a second attack on a Swedish honeymooning couple at Dolphin Park, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, then quickly surfaced. During a session with six other tourists at a SWTD program, bottlenose dolphin Picasso, attacked several participants forcing one of them to describe the incident like a scene from the movie Jaws.
Cetacean welfare organizations have been screaming over the lack of regulations not governing these types of programs for years. In 2003, the investigative report: Biting the Hand that Feeds was released jointly by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Its findings revealed just how detrimental petting pools were for both humans and marine mammals.
Given the current climate and furor created by the recent incidents highlighted in the media, the issue might be perceived as a novel one by many. Historically though, these types of accidents or attacks, are far more common than one might think.
This video uploaded by Marine Connection in 2008, is of a dolphin called Annie housed at Dolphin Academy Curacao. The alarming footage shows Annie landing on top of three people who are holding a bar for her to jump over. Bear in mind a bottlenose dolphin can weigh up to 1,400 pounds.
In this incident that occurred in 2009 at Dolphin Encounter in the Bahamas, YouTube user essentialyoga, says that the girl being bitten here by a dolphin, was "my daughter Teresa."
Madeleinerao captured this footage of a dolphin at SeaWorld rising out of the pool to nudge a female in the stomach. The nudge was significant enough to push her backwards and may have been the result of a frustrated dolphin who just wanted his fish. The smelt is dangled for an incredibly long time over the dolphin in an attempt to pose for a photograph.
Filmed at an unknown location in 2008, this video shows dolphins and swimmers together in a walled-off area. One dolphin suddenly gains speed and hits a young girl in the process. The uploader of the video, LevKaufman, describes the dolphin as "young and uncoordinated."
Meanwhile, a dolphin named Beetle earned the reputation of being a known biter subsequently becoming a huge problem for SeaWorld Orlando. Beetle bit several people including a seven-year-old Port Orange boy, and a six-year-old Georgia boy.
SeaWorld eventually loaned Beetle to the Mirage Hotel and Casino. His transfer accompanied that of another known problem animal named Cosmo. Both of these dolphins were captive born according to's Phin'ventory. And both still reside at the Mirage resort in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Perhaps the most shocking video of all, is this deliberate dolphin attack on a group of swimmers participating in an SWTD at an unknown location. The dolphin clearly goes off behavior, an act that appears amusing at first until it chooses to ignore the dolphin trainer's whistles.
Filmed in 2009 by YouTube user Alekzisco, the group of swimmers transition from delight to sheer panic as the dolphin tail slaps and bumps people.
At one point, the trainer even jumps into the water in an attempt to gain control of the errant marine mammal. Meanwhile, the swimmers cannot exit the area fast enough. One injured man is seen clutching his ribs as he finally escapes from the pool.
Another similar incident occurred in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. YouTube user SilvanaStraccia described what happened:
While the first one throws me water in the eyes, the other one comes behind and hits my chest, and sank me under the water. I ended up in Hospital with the cartilages broken for 8 weeks.
Straccia added after paying $100 for the experience:
They earn a fortune with no responsibilities, as they made me sign a paper before entering, not being responsible for any ACCIDENTS! So you cant claim.
The videos above only represent the tip of the iceberg, for consideration must also be given to attacks on trainers committed by orcas. Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family, and captive orcas have attacked and even killed people.
Currently SeaWorld and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) are about to head back to court because the marine mammal park has not yet abated the hazards identified by the agency after the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Brancheau was killed by SeaWorld's massive bull orca Tilikum in a gruesome attack during a show.
"Since the suspension of the SWTD Regulations in 1999," said WDC/HSI in its report, "there has been no legal requirement for public display facilities in the US to report injuries incurred by visitors in human-dolphin interaction programs to the authorities, nor for the facilities to provide contact details to enable visitors to report complaints or injuries themselves."
APHIS itself stated:
In 1994, changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) placed sole responsibility for regulatory oversight of “swim with the dolphin” interactive programs with APHIS. The change to the MMPA prompted AC to initiate the regulatory process to address the special needs of these programs.
APHIS published a proposed rule in the Federal Register and, after reviewing and considering all comments received, published a final rule. However, soon after publication of the final rule, questions were raised that led APHIS to suspend enforcement of the provisions until the rule could be reanalyzed and clarifications could be proposed. Enforcement of the provisions remains suspended.
Yet this reanalysis and clarification is still underway more than 13 years later, despite obvious injuries and incidents that have occurred during this time frame. Considering the number of programs conducted on a daily basis, dolphin attacks are not prolific or we would hear more about them.
But these incidents do happen, and often they occur by accident or are caused by frustration on the part of the animal. To what extent, we cannot fully realize without a system in place for reporting them. And how long will it be before one of these incidents is fatal?
Orca Conservancy is petitioning APHIS to Reinstate Swim with Dolphin Program regulations. With "16 facilities in the U.S. operating SWTD programs," the group says, "there is no governing agency overseeing what is going on during these interactive sessions."