After Protests, National Aquarium To Move Dolphins To Oceanside Site Under Human Captivity
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The National Aquarium will move it's eight bottlenose dolphins to an oceanside sanctuary. That decision was announced this week after years of protests by animal rights activists and debate among aquarium officials. John Racanelli is the CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He joins us on the line now from Marin County, Calif. Mr. Racanelli, thanks so much for being with us.
JOHN RACANELLI: Glad to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: And why are you moving the dolphins?
RACANELLI: We've created a new option for human care of dolphins. This has not yet been tried, but it's something I think we've learned enough about to be able to do properly. And we're the ones that probably should do this.
SIMON: They won't be in the wild, as I understand. It's still under human care but in different circumstances?
RACANELLI: Yeah, they'll be in a setting that is, as closely as possible, approximates the natural conditions where dolphins typically live, i.e., natural seawater, in the ocean, in a setting that has vegetated shorelines and natural bottoms and organisms, you know, plants and animals that would otherwise be found there. But they will be under human care for most likely their entire lives, yes.
SIMON: Do you anticipate adjustment problems? The aquarium, I guess, is the only home they've ever really known.
RACANELLI: They have all known - either all or very - the lion's share of their lives in this kind of setting. And it will be a completely new experience for them. So they need to go through a lot of acclamation, both behaviorally and physiologically, in order to make this transition successfully.
SIMON: And how do you do that?
RACANELLI: Well, on the behavioral side, that means helping them go from being in this setting to open air and open - eventually open water. We would take them through a very careful process of getting used to the transport units, getting used to being on a crane and in a truck and then in a tank on the dock. Eventually, they might even take drives around Baltimore to get used to the idea that they're going to be mobile since they've have not done that before.
The other aspect is the physiological adaptation, and that's a very complex and laborious process. Every - all living organisms have a microbiome associated with them. That's all the microorganisms that live around us and on us - bacteria, fungus, spores, larvae, et cetera. Dolphins do too and, in fact, in seawater, it's quite present. And the water that they live in now, which is man-made saltwater, it's fairly sterile. And of course, the ocean is not sterile.
So we will go through a long process, once we've selected a site, that will begin to integrate that water into the water they live in here so that eventually, when they leave here, they will be in water that almost completely matches the water that they'll be moving to.
SIMON: I gather, Mr. Racanelli, you've known dolphins, worked with them in a sense, since you were a teenager.
RACANELLI: That is true. Although, I wouldn't call myself a dolphin trainer or any of that. I did start working with dolphins as a high school job, going into college, back in the 1970s.
SIMON: And what did you do?
RACANELLI: I started out there as a diver. I, you know, fancied myself a junior Jacques Cousteau. But in real terms, my job was to scrub tanks for the most part.
SIMON: Are we looking at a new time in, what I'll call the display world, the museum world, the animal world, in which, I think, institutions that try and have animals available for people to get to know them are rethinking the whole terms of captivity?
RACANELLI: Well, I'll say this. We owe our existence to the public, and attitudes have evolved. Millennials have very different attitudes about large-brained marine mammals, or even other what are called charismatic megafauna, like elephants and large cats and the like. There is an increasing level of unease with the notion of keeping dolphins and whales in this kind of setting. And we pay attention to that. Those beliefs do matter to us.
We also think it's important that people learn about dolphins in the context of what they really do in the ocean and what kind of lives they lead. And we do our best to make that point in the setting that we have. But it's a pretty marginal approximation of the world that dolphins come from.
SIMON: John Racanelli is the CEO of the National Aquarium. Thanks so much for being with us.
RACANELLI: My pleasure, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.