Dolphins Forced To Jump Through Flames In Nightmare Traveling Circuses

"It's hell for them."

In a disturbing video, a dolphin leaps out of a shallow pool and darts through a ring of fire. The crowd cheers; a whistle blows. In the next scene, two dolphins swim on their backs, basketballs clasped between their pectoral fins.

The Dolphin Project

After that, a man tosses rings across the length of the pool for the dolphins to fetch. When they get the trick wrong, the man beats the water with a metal pole.

The clip, which was released by Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project, shows dolphins performing in one of Indonesia's traveling dolphin circuses. Like at SeaWorld and other dolphinariums around the world, these dolphins are forced to perform tricks like jumping through hoops or doing flips, and are "rewarded" with pieces of dead fish.

A dolphin waiting for a "reward" of dead fish | The Dolphin Project

While all captive dolphin facilities have welfare issues, the circuses in Indonesia seem decidedly crueler - because they're traveling.

When the circuses move, the dolphins are loaded into blue crates and driven in pickup trucks, often for hundreds of miles. Some dolphins are even loaded onto airplanes when the traveling circus goes to another Indonesian island.

A dolphin being carried in a sling | The Dolphin Project

Once on location, the dolphins have to perform in temporary, portable plastic pools filled with chlorine and artificial salt water.

"It's extremely cruel," Femke Den Haas, founder of Jakarta Animal Aid Network, told The Dodo. "When I first learned about the traveling dolphin shows, I couldn't believe it."

Back in 2009, Den Haas got a call from someone who said they were working at a traveling dolphin circus in Bekasi, a city outside Jakarta. The show had been set up in a local field.

Jakarta Animal Aid Network

"The person who called me was reporting about the dying dolphin at the traveling show," Den Haas said. "At first, I didn't believe her, because I said, 'There's no way that there are dolphins there on a football field.' But we went to check it out, and I was really, really shocked. When we arrived, the one dolphin was already dead."

While the cause of death wasn't clear, stress - and poor living conditions - probably had a lot to do with it.

The Dolphin Project

"It was a tiny pool in a tent," Den Haas said. "Very highly chlorinated. So strong that it hurt your eyes when you were standing there. Dolphins are the same as us - they're just as sensitive to the chlorine, but they can't get out of the water."

Den Haas immediately reported the dolphin show to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the governing body responsible for the management of dolphins in Indonesia. "I was convinced that they would take action," Den Haas said. "But they didn't. And now it's 2016, and the dolphin shows are still operating."

The Dolphin Project

Three Indonesian companies currently run traveling circuses - Ancol, Wersut Seguni Indonesia and Taman Safari Indonesia - according to Den Haas.

When approached for comment, Taman Safari Indonesia said, "There never was traveling dolphin show at the Safari Park," though the park did not specify whether it sponsored traveling dolphin shows outside of the park. Ancol and Wersut Seguni Indonesia could not be reached for comment.

Ancol is the largest operator, according to Den Haas, running three traveling circuses, as well as a permanent dolphinarium in Jakarta, which is referred to on the company's website as "SeaWorld Ancol" - though it has no affiliation with the U.S. company.

What's more, Ancol sells dolphins to swim-with-the-dolphin programs and other dolphinariums around Indonesia. "They send dolphins everywhere," Den Haas said.

Dolphins performing at "SeaWorld Ancol" | Luke Massey

But where do the dolphins come from before Ancol reportedly sells them off?

Lincoln O'Barry, of Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project, explained that local fishermen catch wild dolphins off the shores of the Indonesian islands. "They place an order, and the fishermen would go out and catch the dolphins," O'Barry told The Dodo. "And when he comes back, he basically reports, 'I've accidentally caught a dolphin in my net. I now need Ancol to come rescue it.' So that's how most of the dolphins come into captivity."

The stadium at "SeaWorld Ancol" | Luke Massey

Den Haas also explains that all captive dolphins are taken from the wild - none are bred in captivity - even though the dolphinariums like to make such claims. "One of the caretakers said, 'These dolphins are caught pregnant, and then they have a premature birth,'" she explained. "Often the babies die, but it's all over the news that they had a baby born there and how great they are, but the truth is that they're using wild-caught dolphins, and there are no captive dolphins successfully bred here."

Yet dolphins are a protected species in Indonesia. While the species should ideally be managed by the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, dolphins are actually managed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The forestry department is the one that issues permits to companies like Ancol to keep dolphins, Den Haas explains.

Jakarta Animal Aid Network

"It should be fisheries," said Den Haas, who also serves as Indonesia campaign manager for Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project. "And fisheries is now questioning the forestry department: 'Why are you providing these permits?' There's a lot of pressure on the forestry department, but they just don't care."

In 2013, the forestry department even got a letter from the International Union of Conservation and Nature (IUCN), asking the forestry department to immediately stop the dolphin circuses. "I don't think anything could be stronger than a letter from the IUCN," Den Haas said. "But they just ignore it."

Den Haas believes the forestry department's inaction has everything to do with money - and corruption. "It's big money - 800 million rupiah [$60,000 USD] per month per circus," she said.

A dolphin in a pool at Ancol amusement park | Luke Massey

Dolphins, however, pay a high price for this financial gain.

After being yanked out of the ocean and torn away from their families, the dolphins are reportedly carted around Indonesia to perform show after show in the tiny, makeshift pools.

O'Barry was just on the ground in Indonesia, and said he's seen the circus companies set up. "They'll dig a hole, put a plastic liner in it, pour a bag of salt, and they'll get the fire department to come fill it up with water, and then they'll put a circus tent over it," he said.

A worker setting up the stage for a dolphin circus | Jakarta Animal Aid Network

For the most part, the circuses travel to small rural towns, where "there's nothing else going on," according to O'Barry. When they visit big cities, they set up in fields, or even parking garages and parking lots.

Once the "pool" is ready, the dolphins are unloaded from carrying crates and dumped into the water. When the performance begins, the dolphins have to do various tricks, like collecting hoops, solving puzzles or jumping through rings of fire.

A dolphin at the base camp for the traveling show | The Dolphin Project

"It's pretty barbaric," O'Barry said. "It's the only time I've seen dolphins jumping through a hoop of fire. It's definitely something from a bygone era."

While the dolphins perform, music blares and the crowd screams. "Dolphins are acoustic animals, so it's hell for them," Den Haas explained. "They're in so much pain being exposed to this amount of noise."

Guests getting to interact with the captive dolphins | The Dolphin Project

When the show finishes, guests can pay extra to walk out on stage to kiss the dolphins and take photographs with them.

They use two dolphins in each show, according to O'Barry.

But dolphins aren't the only animals forced to perform. Most of the circuses also have sun bears, otters and cockatoos performing tricks. And the animals clearly hate it, according to O'Barry.

A sun bear performing at Ancol | Luke Massey

"You see the bear come out riding on the bicycle, and he's trying to run away from them, and the otters are trying to get away and to jump over the fence," he said.

The dolphins, of course, aren't able to make the same escape attempts. But O'Barry is sure they're just as miserable. "You just know they're unhappy," he said. "It's so unnatural what they're doing."

The Dolphin Project

When it's time for the circus to move, the dolphins are caught in large nets and pulled to the side of the pool. Then they're loaded onto stretchers, which are placed in the blue travel boxes again.

A dolphin being netted out of the pool | The Dolphin Project

"Those blue boxes have like 6 inches of foam inside of them," O'Barry explained. "And they're like halfway full of water, and then the stretchers just kind of hang like that. Then they load them onto this old, rusty pickup truck."

Dolphins being loaded in their carrying crates | The Dolphin Project

It often takes hours for the circus to get to the next location. "Somebody said recently that they were going somewhere that was like a 14-hour drive," O'Barry said. "I'm sure some of the places they go, it's 24 hours. And this is a third world country. We're not talking about beautifully paved freeways. These are bumpy roads. Dolphins aren't supposed to be driven over land like that."

The truck that transports the dolphins from show to show | The Dolphin Project

O'Barry believes this travel takes a heavy toll on the dolphins' health. "I think having to travel all the time in the stretchers would cause chafing on the skin," he said. "Dolphins are also used to living in the water - their organs are used to living in that weightless condition. I'm sure spending so much time out of the water also affects their physiology."

Besides the stress of the travel, the dolphins aren't fed very well. "The food they get is cut fish, and it's not fresh," Den Haas said. "If you look at any storage room in these facilities, you always find these medicines to treat ulcers and stomach problems, because all these dolphins suffer from stomach problems."

The Dolphin Project

Then there's the issue of the chlorinated water. "They go blind," Den Haas said. "It's like when you go in the pool, and after an hour, your eyes hurt because you're exposed to chlorine all the time. And they get skin diseases and they also get ulcers because chlorine gets into their body."

While there is no official database to keep track of the dolphins, Den Haas believes they die young - really young. "They'll die at 4 or 5 years old," she said, despite their life span of 40 years or more. "We know this from some caretakers who release information. We also know that once they die young, they keep changing them with new dolphins."

Jakarta Animal Aid Network

In other words, a dead dolphin is replaced with a freshly caught wild dolphin. "They're really organized," Den Haas said. "They'll unload them in the middle of the night, and then they get them in the premises early in the morning, and nobody knows."

However, both JAAN and The Dolphin Project have been working to stop fishermen from catching wild dolphins. In 2011, the two organizations built a rescue and rehabilitation center called Camp Lumba Lumba, and made an agreement with the government for any stranded or injured dolphins to go there - and not to facilities like Ancol SeaWorld or the traveling circuses.

The sea pen at Camp Lumba Lumba | The Dolphin Project

"If a fishermen were to go out and say, 'I've accidentally caught a dolphin in my net,' the dolphinariums can no longer come 'rescue' it," O'Barry explained. "They have to go to our facility."

That said, Camp Lumba Lumba has never had a dolphin in its sea pen.

Another view of Camp Lumba Lumba | The Dolphin Project

"We've come so close," O'Barry said. "We've had the helicopter on hold, the army trucks lined up, everything ready to go. Then all of a sudden we get a phone call that for some reason we're not going there. The fix was in, somebody paid somebody off."

O'Barry still believes that Camp Lumba Luma has limited the further capture of wild dolphins. "Because by law, any dolphin that gets captured has to go to our facility," he said.

However, he concedes that illegal capture could still be going on. "There's always a chance that they're catching them in some hidden fisherman's village, because they're not keeping great records of these places," O'Barry said.

Dolphins being "trained" at SeaWorld Ancol | Luke Massey

Den Haas believes the best thing people can do to stop the dolphin shows is public protest. "Tell the ambassador to Indonesia in your country that you're very concerned about what's happening to dolphins in Indonesia, and that you want to see the travel shows banned," Den Haas said. "I'm pretty sure all these reports will end up with the president. The more we put pressure, and the more we reach him, the more he'll feel like he needs to step up. Send letters, or organize a demonstration at Indonesian embassies all around the world - it would help tremendously."

To help dolphins in Indonesia's circuses, consider signing this petition. You can also make a donation to The Dolphin Project to help fight the dolphin circus industry in Indonesia.