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Not-So-Friendly Skies: United Airlines Continues To Transport Dolphins To Marine Parks

United Airlines has become the latest target of international anti-captivity activists who are trying to convince commercial air and cargo carriers not to transport whales and dolphins for the marine mammal display industry.

Flying whales and dolphins around the world is not only highly lucrative for the carriers, it facilitates the transport of wild-caught animals-including dolphins from the cove in Taiji, Japan- and allows marine theme parks to buy, sell or trade cetaceans to each other, and to send them out on "breeding loans."

While the the captivity industry and airlines benefit from the practice - there would be far fewer dolphins captured in Taiji if there was no way to fly them out of Japan - the long flights in small containers are stressful for the animals themselves. The petition to United Airlines, posted at Change.org reads:

"Your airline engages in the transportation of live dolphins and/or whales. This practice explicitly condones the outrageous hunting, killing, capturing, training, transporting, and the misery of a life in confinement for these animals. Today, we see a savvy world population and an expansion of the stakeholders in a business to include the community at large. Companies are expected to consider a wide range of social responsibilities and no longer can they hide behind ignorance or profit. The world demands more from corporations in exchange for their patronage."

"We brought United up because of a PETA article praising them for not endorsing SeaWorld trips," said Jeremy Olson, co-founder of the dolphin advocacy group Voices for the Sea. "We then called United and acted as if we wanted to transport dolphins to confirm, and they do still do this service and there is no policy against it."

The group has so far received no response from the airline, but a recent Twitter thread is illustrative of United's position on the issue. The Cove and OPS posted this:

And someone from the United, apparently seeing a new business opportunity, tweeted back: "Transporting? If someone needs assistance please let me know."

"Contact the corporate office and make sure they are talking to someone from United Cargo," Olson said, when describing how to voice concern. "You can also send emails requesting that they stop transporting live dolphins and adapt a no transporting live cetaceans policy."

Similar petitions, from Voices for the Sea and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) have been generated in recent months for seven other top airlines and cargo operators, asking them to join the 41 carriers that will not transport cetaceans: the most recent airlines targeted are ULS; Korean Air; Air China; FedEx; Asiana Airlines; Nankai Express; and DHL Cargo.

Among U.S. carriers that refuse to transport whales and dolphins are American Airlines, Delta, US Air and UPS. Another recent convert is Hong Kong Airlines, which announced earlier this year it would stop carrying cetaceans aboard its plane after receiving 6,500 signatures on an online petition organized by WDC. The airline had infuriated animal-welfare groups worldwide after flying five dolphins from Japan to Vietnam in January 2012 and issuing an internal memo (leaked by an employee) boasting of the $109,000 it made on the seven-hour flight.

"We wrote over 300 carriers, and have been waging an ongoing campaign to encourage airlines to commit to not carrying dolphins acquired from the wild," WDC's Courtney Vail said. "Our more recent airline letters and outreach commenced in earnest in January 2013, but our campaigns go back much further, to the late 1990s." In a piece written last April for The Dodo, Vail described the damage that transport can inflict on marine mammals. "Scientific data reveal that the stress of transfer and of adapting to a new captive environment can pose a serious risk to their health and welfare," she wrote. "Unnecessary handling and transport produce a demonstrable change in stress hormone levels ... It is well established that chronic stress can lead to immunosuppression and susceptibility to disease."

Activists have scored significant victories on this front, but there is still a ways to go. According to the captive-cetacean website Ceta-Base, last year alone, 274 live cetaceans were transferred or transported internationally to places like China, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, Turkey and the United States. Among the worst offenders, activists say, are Air China, ULS, Korean Air and FedEx. "Airlines are low hanging fruit, and have a good deal of public exposure," Vail said. "So the more pressure the better." Activists vow to keep up the fight until there's only one reason for dolphins to be sent 30,000 feet into the air - rescue and rehabilitation.