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The Navy Should Stop Using Captive Dolphins

January 25, 2012 by Ric O'Barry, Earth Island Institute

By Ric O’Barry
Campaign Director
Dolphin Project
Earth Island Institute

If you’ve been reading the papers or watching TV news recently, you may be aware that the US Navy is deploying captive dolphins in the Persian Gulf in order to address threats by the government of Iran to close this seaway to traffic, threatening global oil supplies.

Whatever one thinks about our own national security needs or the wisdom of our species to promulgate war on our own species, should we really be dragging other species into our conflicts?

Stephen Spielberg asks this question in his new movie War Horse, about a horse brought to the front lines of World War One.  Armies at that time were still obsessed with the idea of the gallant cavalry charge against the opponent – an idea that died quickly on the WW1 battlefields under the blaze of the newly invented machine guns.

I spent some time a few years ago at the US Navy marine mammal facility in San Diego. I met there all the dolphins involved at that time in the program. The Navy’s dolphin program is top secret, thus we really don't know which dolphins are in the war zone and which are standing by to be trained to enter the war zone.  They are used to find mines and stop enemy divers from placing mines on our own ships.

But these dolphins, around 80 at present, all live in sub-standard conditions and are controlled by food. The Navy used to use the term “Advanced Biological Weapon System” (ABWS) to describe these dolphins, which is an accurate job description. It is also very revealing as it describes our relationship with nature. In my opinion, this is a faulty weapon system and should be replaced with an alternative such as side-scan sonar, which is cruelty-free and more dependable.

In a perfect world, the animals would be given an honorable discharge and sent home.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I like the Navy.  I spent five of the most important years of my life in the US Navy, and I have a lot of respect for our military people.  I know they work hard and put themselves in danger to protect our nation and other nations.  But I would bet that most enlisted men and women would agree with me, if they knew the cruelty in the capture process, the extreme pressures of captivity on these dolphins, and the inhumane means used to train them.

Photo of a Navy dolphin with an AFD by Captain Ron Canning.

For example, to cite another Navy term, these dolphins are fitted with an Anti Foraging Device (AFD). This is a simple strip of orange Velcro that is attached around the snout. The AFD prevents the dolphin from opening its mouth, which is necessary for the dolphin to catch fish and eat. This is how the Navy dolphins are controlled when they are in the open sea. When one is lost, they send out a search team to look for the "system" using a "recall pinger," which can be heard by the dolphin from a great distance. If the dolphin returns to the pinger and trainer, the AFD is removed and the ABWS is rewarded with food. If the "system" is lost, they simply replace it with another one.  (Apparently, dolphins are now called M5 (for “Mark Five”), M6, M7 and so on, dropping the ABWS terminology.)

Another real danger to the dolphins — and I'm talking about all dolphins in a war zone — is the fact that every dolphin in the area, wild or trained, is placed in harm's way because the enemy simply kills every dolphin that they come across. One can't really tell the difference between the friendly and the enemy dolphins. "Kill them all and let God sort them out" is the plan of the day. This is done with bombs, hand grenades, and especially "ashcans," which is an anti-submarine explosion devise. I really can't tell you much about the Iran dolphins. I do know that when the Cold War ended, many of the Soviet navy dolphin trainers started working in the Middle East capturing and training dolphins for the captive dolphin industry, but I don't have any insight into their activities.

And the sad fact is, dolphins are not dependable; they are controlled by food. When they are full, they do not respond. This is exactly why we had five dolphins for the Flipper TV series. When Flipper #1 had ten pounds of food and was full, I lost control, and I would bring on Flipper #2, and so on.

These dolphins don’t understand anything about warfare – it is a game to them; a way to get fed.  They don’t treat it like a deadly conflict as we do.

We believe that all animals kept by, or under the control of, humans must be maintained in circumstances appropriate to their species. In the case of the US Navy dolphins, along with the inherent dangers of the duties they are called upon to perform, the suffering caused by the training, transport and keeping in captivity of this species is well-documented and a cause for great concern.

Animals are apolitical and should not be drafted into military service or deliberately put in danger during a human conflict.

And we can rehabilitate and release these dolphins back into the wild to live out the rest of their lives in freedom.

Buck and Luther were two US Navy dolphins that I released back into the wild, after spending two years of preparation and training them to survive.  (The photo leading this blog on the left is of us releasing them off our boat.)  The Navy recaptured them a few days later, calling it a “rescue”. The Navy was able to use the Navy recall pinger that I mentioned earlier to lure them back into a sea pen.

Fact is, that release was sabotaged because it had the potential to open the door of freedom for all Navy dolphins. This was a major threat to the entire program and had the potential to end the flow of millions of dollars to the civilian corporation that runs this program. After they were re-captured, Buck was sent to the Dolphin Research Center, a captive operation. He spent a few years there painting pictures for tourists before he died of terminal captivity. Luther was flown back to the polluted waters of San Diego Bay and back into active duty in the Navy.

By the way, I wrote a book about all of this. It's called: To Free a Dolphin.  The Navy did nothing over that incident, and then, two years after the fact, they got the US National Marine Fisheries Service to sue me in civil court.  I had no money to hire a good lawyer to get me off, so I paid the fine (actually my good friends Fred Neil and Jerry Jeff Walker produced a musical benefit concert and paid the fine for me). 

The captivity industry uses this incident to claim that I committed a crime and was arrested – in fact, I was never charged or held in jail for the so-called “crime” of freeing captive dolphins.

Here are some of the listed causes of death among US Navy dolphins:

*Foreign body 
(presumably eaten?)
*Capture related 

*Drowning 

*Failure to adapt 

*Related to jaw fracture 

*Possible toxic fish 

*During release 

*Spinal fracture 

*Toxic shock 

*Failure to thrive 
during testing

Source: Marine Mammal Inventory Report 11/09/2000. Available through the Freedom of Information Act.

There is no need to keep these animals anymore, and doing so undermines our security and harms these intelligent, self-aware beings.

The Navy dolphin program should be brought to an end.

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