10 min read

Should Humans And Dolphins Ever Be Friends?

A dolphin who has been making human friends along Australia's east coast is in danger of being condemned to a life in captivity as anthropocentric perspectives and management schemes continue to dominate human-dolphin interactions.

The friendly young dolphin, estimated as being between one and two years old, is classified as a "sociable" dolphin, a scientific term for a widespread and little understood phenomena where wild individual dolphins initiate interactions with human beings.

Despite the apparent desire of the dolphins to have positive encounters with people, these interactions can often lead to the injury or demise of the dolphin, largely due to the misunderstandings and misbehavior of humans toward these sociables.

Good intentions notwithstanding, many people treat sociable dolphins as though they are playthings designed for their amusement rather than the thinking, feeling beings we now know them to be. This fundamental misunderstanding of dolphins is fueled by the captivity dolphin industry, where dolphins are made to withstand grabbing, prodding and fin-riding by so-called "trainers" at the behest of gleeful tourists.

When used in the wild with sociables, these disrespectful behaviors can result in understandable retaliations from the dolphin (would you like it if I jumped on your back within moments of meeting you?), leading some to believe that it is better to discourage human-dolphin interactions altogether.

There are, however, ways to encourage positive relations between sociables and humans, which are worthwhile since this is what the dolphins appear to want. "Because science now strongly suspects cetaceans qualify as non-human persons, its time we figure out a better response to their friendly or curious overtures than giving them the cold shoulder," says Leah Lemieux, author of "Rekindling the Waters: The Truth About Swimming with Dolphins." "Its about time we start learning how to treat them as persons."

The Organization for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia, one of the organizations managing the situation in Australia, is asking people to follow some "golden rules" when interacting with the dolphin: no chasing, hitting, grabbing, or other such behaviors. Despite the validity of these rules, they are addressing piecemeal behaviors and leaving out many others (for example,"no shoving ice cream cones down the dolphin's blowhole," as happened to one unfortunate sociable).

Rather than a collection of "golden rules," we should be using the Golden Rule: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This ancient concept appears in nearly every culture on the planet and throughout history has been a standard way that different cultures resolve conflicts. The Golden Rule is the one that prevents us from hitting and grabbing strangers, and is what promotes empathy towards one another.

So why should it be reserved for use exclusively within our species?

Asking people to treat sociable dolphins as they themselves would like to be treated could go a long way towards ensuring positive outcomes for everyone involved. Toni Frohoff, a behavioral biologist and director of TerraMar Research, says of the Australia situation: "My graduate degree in Wildlife Management taught me that when humans attempt to "manage" wildlife, they typically mis-manage. The only management needed is for the people, not the dolphins." Throwing up our hands and assuming that humans will never learn is just not acceptable, nor is it ethical. The time has come for us humans to conduct ourselves more politely towards dolphins and other nonhuman life.

Another anthropocentric management solution is to send the dolphin to a captive facility. As the documentaries "The Cove" and "Blackfish" show, however, captivity is never the answer. Part of the argument for captivity is to prevent propeller strikes or fishing line entanglements that may injure or kill the dolphins. Not only are these problems that can be solved, again, by managing people and their activities, but this argument is also selling the dolphins short.

"The ocean is the dolphins' home -- for most of us, it is merely our playground," points out Frohoff. "It has been their home for millions of years. We need to become civilized enough to respect them where they, not we, live."

Dolphins know what they are doing. They make decisions and understand the ocean more than we ever could. Perhaps the Australian dolphin has learned how to avoid potential dangers in her environment, but the fact that we don't know for sure does not give us the right to remove her from her ocean home.

Unfortunately Australia is no stranger to capturing sociable dolphins. In 2009, at the request of the Department of Environment and Resource Management, SeaWorld Gold Coast captured Cliffy, another friendly sociable who interacted with people around the Port of Brisbane. To this day, Cliffy continues to bring in big bucks for the aquarium, never to see the ocean or his family again.

Many believed that Cliffy was not a threat to public safety or himself, as the DERM had concluded. "(The ocean) is his home. They should have left him... obviously he wanted to be here,'' Angelo Di Pino, one of the locals who interacted with Cliffy, told the Wynnum Herald.

Trying to protect a dolphin from its own habitat seems absurd. Protecting dolphins from ourselves is more reasonable, but only because our awareness of who dolphins are, and how we should be relating to them, is still so nascent.

Ultimately, we should question why being friendly toward human beings must land sociable dolphins in what amounts to a life sentence in jail. As the young Australian dolphin continues to make human friends, her life sentence in captivity may be drawing ever nearer. And SeaWorld Gold Coast is likely salivating in anticipation of another prize attraction.

Let's hope the Golden Rule catches on in Australia quickly, and awareness continues to grow in time to save this little one from ourselves.