Terrible Journey for Mexican Dolphins

Aug. 1, 2001 -- Disturbing video showing cruel treatment of dolphins in a Mexican resort town has angered activists and stirred up debate about programs that use dolphins to attract tourists.

News cameraman Juan Ramirez says he wept while shooting the video of men clumsily carrying a dolphin named Quinta across a highway in La Paz, Mexico. Quinta appeared to be suffering and several times, she was accidentally dropped to the ground.

"It was like they were moving a piano," says Ramirez. "They weren't caring about the dolphins."

Botched Transport

Quinta was one of eight dolphins that hours earlier were forcibly pulled from the Pacific Ocean 200 miles away and trucked in dry wooden crates to La Paz on the southern tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. They were captured to be trained to swim with vacationers at the Fins Dolphin Learning Center, where they would be confined to fenced-off sections of the ocean.

One of the dolphins transferred to La Paz, named Luna, died two months later.

Activist and former dolphin trainer Rick O'Barry —, who helped train the dophin in the 1960s television show Flipper — worries that the lives of the seven remaining dolphins are now in danger, because they have no shade from the sun in the shallow water to which they are confined.

"They're from the Pacific Ocean, which is at least 15 degrees colder," says O'Barry. "It's very questionable whether they can survive that."

The trainers at the La Paz facility, however, argue the water is only shallow at low tide and insist the dolphins are not in danger. Regarding Luna, the trainers say that the dolphin was already sick and although they tried to save her, her death was unavoidable.

"We tried our best, she died," says trainer Andrea Aedo. "Dolphins die, dolphins get sick."

Shocked by the video, Mexico's environmental minister, Victor Lichtinger, suspended the facility's operating permit.

"All of Mexico was outraged by the way the dolphins were transported," he says. "I saw the video and I was very, very mad."

But the trainers at the facility are going to court to get their permit back so they can keep the dolphins. They argue that the facility meets all Mexican regulations and that the animals are better off with them.

To Swim or Not to Swim

The public's affection for dolphins has spawned a multimillion-dollar industry. There are dolphin shows, where they perform acrobatic feats for adoring crowds. There are dolphin petting pools, where people can feed and touch them. More recently, swim-with-the-dolphin programs have become popular in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The graphic footage from La Paz has raised questions about captive dolphin programs all over the world. There seems to be little consensus about whether the programs are harmful to the dolphins. Some argue that a well-run program can be educational and beneficial to the species.

For example, Discovery Cove in Orlando, Fla., is the largest swim-with-the-dolphins program in the United States. Almost all the dolphins there were born in captivity. General manger Frank Murro says the dolphins are "well cared for" and "well-adjusted to this kind of environment."

Murro emphasizes that guests often become advocates for dolphin conservation.

Loving Dolphins to Death

But O'Barry says that much of the exploitation of the animal is a result of the interest generated by the show he worked on.

"Flipper was probably the best and the worst thing that ever happened to dolphins," he says. "On the one hand it exposed us all to dolphins, but on the other hand, it created this desire to kiss them and hug them and love them to death."

Animal-rights activists have been targeting a number of those dolphin programs around the world.

O'Barry is currently in Guatemala, where the government has hired him to help return to the sea two dolphins that were found in a tank of putrid water in the mountains. They were abandoned by the owners of a traveling dolphin show.

He's also offering to help the Mexican government return the seven dolphins in La Paz to their home in the Pacific.