New dolphin exhibit triggers debate about captivity

Walt Disney was fond of saying, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.”

It’s a cavalier motto from the ultimate entertainment maestro, but one that is a frequent reference for any entity stuck between selling itself as an educational pursuit while also providing enough razzle dazzle to lure tourists.

This Saturday’s opening of Georgia Aquarium’s $110 million dolphin exhibit is a case in point. The new indoor display, AT&T Dolphin Tales, contains a spacious gallery bordered with a 25-foot-long underwater viewing window and pockets of flat screens offering dolphin conservation information – and accessible for free by aquarium guests.

Inside an enclosed theater, a lavish production – a $12.50 add-on to adult aquarium admission -- features a rotating cast of 11 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins engaging in a show far glitzier than typical trainers-in-pool fare at Miami Seaquarium or the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

But the arrival of Dolphin Tales has re-triggered concerns among anti-captivity advocates. They argue that the exhibit is detrimental to the well-being of the marine mammals and devised purely as a fresh money-maker for the venue.

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The aquarium, meanwhile, has always maintained that it seeks to educate through its displays and research initiatives, while also offering “edutainment” opportunities to swim with whale sharks and hosting sleepovers.

Georgia Aquarium specialists believe that the new dolphin exhibit will continue to edify visitors, while experienced trainers take top care of the show’s stars.

“It matters that you walk away from the show and the aquarium and say, ‘Wow, I wonder if there is something more I should do or learn about?’ ” said Billy Hurley, chief animal officer and senior vice president of husbandry at Georgia Aquarium. “We hope that children more than anybody take that inspiration.”

Questioning benefits

But academic experts such as Dr. Lori Marino of Emory University, a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology who has studied the effects of dolphin captivity for more than 20 years, isn’t convinced of any educational benefit from such productions.

“There really isn’t a shred of evidence that going to these shows results in any education,” Marino said. “When I look at what the aquarium is doing and the context they’ve put all of this into, I guess they’re not even pretending to be educational at this point. No matter how they dress it up — they can have fountains and choreography — it’s still exploitation of the dolphins. They’re still being made to do these stupid pet tricks.”

Aquarium representatives counter that there are plenty of educational opportunities in its exhibit, which has been three years in the making.

The gallery leading to the newly constructed 1,800-seat theater is dotted with hanging audio and video cones that will continuously broadcast educational messages about dolphin conservation.

A 30-minute pre-show includes interviews with scientists and the aquarium’s director of veterinary services about conservation and animal research; details about the standards of water quality and filtration in the 1.8-million gallon showroom tank; and footage of the dolphins’ careful transport to Atlanta from the Bahamas, Bermuda, Hawaii and Marineland in St. Augustine, Fla.

And, said Hurley, trainers and other marine life experts will frequent the area in front of the dolphin viewing window to answer guests’ questions or offer dolphin details.

Providing the public with accurate information is a concern for Emory’s Marino, who appeared before Congress last April to refute the educational claims of the institutions that publicly display marine animals in captivity.

Her research sought to establish that the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an association that represents marine life parks, aquariums, zoos and research facilities, is selective in the information it presents.

Learning opportunity

Citing a 2005 online survey conducted by Harris Interactive, the Alliance stated that “visitors are coming away from the marine mammal experiences with a heightened overall environmental concern and additional interest in taking environmental action.”

In her testimony, Marino disagreed with the Alliance’s claims and concluded that the poll, “apparently only assesses visitors’ beliefs and perceptions, not whether they actually learned. The poll does not ask respondents about the specific knowledge they have gained or what specific conservation actions they will undertake after visiting a public display facility.”

But Dr. Brian Davis, director of education at Georgia Aquarium, asserts that merely putting visitors in any proximity to the marine mammals “opens up all kinds of learning opportunities” once their interest is piqued.

Davis, a former teacher and assistant principal at Pine Mountain Middle School in Kennesaw, said that when he was in the classroom, “I had to entertain [the students] and put on a show. That initial connection got their attention through entertainment and then the education was layered on.”

The debate about the educational nature of the dolphin exhibit is coupled with another much-deliberated element: the animals’ welfare.

It’s an issue that stretches back more than 40 years, when Ric O’Barry, then a trainer for dolphins at Miami Seaquarium and one of the “Flipper” mammals, quit training and denounced the captivity industry.

But Georgia Aquarium is hardly downplaying the theatrical elements of Dolphin Tales, which boasts live actors as well as numerous video screens, dramatic lighting and swelling songs wrapped around a Disney-esque story about the connection between dolphins and humans.

The spectacle was fashioned by WOW! Works, an Orlando-based creative team whose members have an extensive theme park background, and experience designing and producing shows for Sea World, Disney on Ice and four Super Bowl halftimes.

But the same flashy production that will undoubtedly increase the aquarium’s 2010 attendance of more than 2 million is what has some people, like self-described “accidental activist” Sara McKay of Smyrna, concerned.

“I have traveled a lot and I’ve seen both dolphins and whales in the wild. About two years ago, one of my children was in town and we went to the [Georgia] aquarium and saw the belugas. I didn’t like what I saw,” she said. “They seemed confined to such a small place and I thought, ‘This doesn’t look like the whales I’ve seen out in the wild’ — though I’ve never seen belugas in the wild. They just didn’t seem like they were thriving.”

According to McKay, a group of animal and dolphin activists is expected to protest at the aquarium on Saturday.

Health 'priority No. 1'

Michael Hunt, director of animal training at the aquarium who also plays a role in the Dolphin Tales show, is adamant that “the dolphins’ health and well-being is priority number one.”

The extreme lighting and sound used in the production aren’t detrimental to the animals, said Hurley, because sounds bounce off the water and the other show elements aren’t much different than what the dolphins would experience in nature.

“The sun goes down in the wild and it gets pretty dark. Lightning and thunder happen frequently in Florida,” he said.

Contended Marino, “Dolphins are extraordinarily sensitive acoustically. When they are in captivity, they really don’t have the acoustic range that they have in the wild. I can’t imagine it’s something that is pleasant to them.”

Hunt, who traveled to Hawaii in February 2010 to establish relationships with the dolphins that were transferred to Georgia Aquarium last summer, acknowledged that reinforcements are used to train the animals.

But, he noted, toys and whistles are used more often than food as praise for doing something well.

Said Hurley, “It surprises me that people who have never worked with dolphins have such strong beliefs about what it’s like to work with a dolphin. The people who have the greatest concern for them are those who come in here every day and spend their time with them.”

Marino doesn’t question the affection that trainers have for the dolphins, but to her, it’s a moot point.

“The fact is that there is no way they can provide a natural life for them,” she said. “The dolphins are engaged because they know who is in control. It’s clear that no autonomous animal would be doing the things they’re doing.”

AT&T Dolphin Tales

Opens Saturday. Dolphin combo ticket $37.45 (adults), $25.95 (children 3-12) and $30.45 (senior 65 and older). Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St. NW, Atlanta. 404-581-4000, www.georgiaaquarium.org. Advance reservations suggested.

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