In March 1998, four dolphins made their way from a park in Bulgaria to Dolphin City, an amusement park on ECR Road, 45 km off Chennai. By September the same year, all four of them were dead.
Losing no hope, in mid-2000, the Rs 13 crore dolphinarium petitioned the Ministry of Environment and Forests seeking permission to import dolphins again as a source of entertainment, reasoning that it had improved veterinary conditions at the park. But sustained protests by animals rights groups ensured that the government said no.
In recent years, the MoEF has received proposals from government organisations as well as businesses to set up dolphin parks in cities such as Mumbai, Cochin and Noida.
Sticking to its policy, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), in January this year, issued a note asking Chief Wildlife Wardens of states to withhold permission to any persons, government or private players that propose to import any cetacean species for commercial exhibitions or research purposes as it amounted to a violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
The Board also slammed the ‘misleading’ purposes put forth by the propagators of such parks saying, “Not only does the public not learn much, if anything, about the real life of cetaceans, but they are led to believe that the tricks they see are how cetaceans truly behave in the wild and that the cetaceans are pets and have value only in the context of their relationship to humans.”
But the proposals did not stop. In May this year, following continued requests for permission, the Central Zoo Authority issued a policy statement stating that under no circumstances would the government grant permission to such parks.
While this decision came in as a positive step for activists in India and across the world, the larger question arising is when will countries like the United States, which is home to over 30 such amusement parks, take similar steps?
The United States does not have a specific legislation that looks at protecting the welfare of dolphins. What it does have is a law that regulates how dolphins are captured and confined at parks.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of the United States stipulates that it is legal to keep a dolphin in confinement as long as an individual has a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The criteria for obtaining such permits are: Public display, scientific research, conservation and accidental capture by fishermen.
But do such programmes actually help in educating people about the life of marine mammals? More importantly, do people want to learn about cetaceans by having them confined?
According to Norma Alvares, chairperson of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), for humans, educational entertainment is a big business.
“Entertainers in the United States are not willing to give-in as they see it as ‘educational entertainment’. It is big business for the entertainment industry,” she told Firstpost.
Alvares also added that while these parks believe that they help educate people, they are forgetting about the welfare of the confined animals. “Such parks in the US are not concerned about the consequences that this entertaining business has on animals. "There is no concern about their welfare," she says.
One of the issues is that of space. Dolphins are used to swimming at least 40 miles a day in the wild but the 1979 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) of the United States, legally permits one to confine a dolphin in a tank measuring just 24 x 24 feet, and just 6 feet deep.
A 2002 survey commissioned by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) along with The Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute showed that three out of four Americans opposed the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity.
The results of the survey, which focused largely on orcas (killer whales), showed that there was lack of enthusiasm towards keeping mammals in captivity. 71 percent of the respondents said if such parks were to stop keeping mammals in captivity, they would still visit. A further 14 percent said they would be more likely to visit the place if the harmful practice of displaying mammals were to stop.
Speaking to Firstpost, Poorva Joshipura, CEO of Peta India, said confining marine mammals to intense captivity shortens their life spans. "Marine mammals belong in the ocean and not in barren tanks. Forcing them to spend their lives in such intense captivity would be the equivalent of somebody locking us in a bathtub for life.
“Captive orcas at SeaWorld, one of the prominent parks in the US, are dying at a rate of nearly one per year and at much younger ages than their counterparts in the wild. SeaWorld orcas rarely make it to half the average life expectancy.
“Recognising their rights has to mean an end to their captivity, or their use in entertainment.”
Echoing similar views, Alvares says it amounts to the “enslaving of animals.”
The United Kingdom shut its last dolphinarium in 1993. In 2002, Hungary imposed a ban on keeping dolphins in confinement. In 2005, both Chile and Costa Rica prohibited keeping cetaceans captive. In 2006, Mexico passed legislation that prohibits all live cetacean imports and exports.
Will the United States catch-up with the rest of the world and move towards putting an end to the confinement of marine mammals?
“India’s decision should serves as an example to the United States,” feels Alvares.