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Where do captive dolphins come from?

Contrary to the popular perception that all captive dolphins are born in captivity, many of those currently in captivity were once wild and free. While some water parks obtain dolphins legally, others find that obtaining the animals through proper channels takes more time and money than they are willing to invest. As a result, a thriving illegal trade in live wild-caught dolphins has emerged in order to meet the demand. Wild animals acquired for a captive facility represent only a portion of those affected.

The capture process is extremely violent, potentially lethal, and inherently cruel. For every wild dolphin taken captive, at least one other is injured or killed during the capture process. Studies suggest that mortality rates increase six-fold after capture. Dolphins are chased to exhaustion by men in speedboats who separate a few dolphins from the rest of the group, corral them with a net and close off the bottom. In a panic, the dolphins often injure themselves when they ram the net in an attempt to escape. Injury and death (usually by drowning) are common. The captured dolphins may then be subjected to traumatic travel in boats, shallow pens on trucks, or between countries on long-haul flights.

The removal of dolphins can be detrimental to the overall population. In particular, the taking of young females, the preferred catch of swim-with-the-dolphin facilities, can affect the health of wild populations over the long term. In regions where very little is known about the status of populations, removing any specimens from the wild is a serious conservation concern because it poses a threat not only to the survival of local dolphins but because it also undermines international measures to protect dolphins.

Is there a big difference between the tank environment that captive dolphins are kept in and their natural environment?

Dolphins are intelligent and social creatures that, in the wild, interact with hundreds of pod-mates, hunt communally, and have entire coastlines as their playground. In captivity, all of this is lost. Social partners are restricted to a handful of tank-mates. Captive dolphins are fed dead fish (wild dolphins only catch and eat live fish; they never eat dead fish) and they face a profound reduction in space and stimulation.

Dolphins in the wild may swim up to 40 or 50 miles in a day and can dive to depths of hundreds of feet. Even in the largest facilities, captive dolphins have access to less than 1/10,000 of 1% (0.000001) of the space available to them in their natural environment. Dolphins in captivity are often restricted to swimming in circles. In many dolphins, this behavior is a sign that the dolphin is suffering psychologically; it is engaging in what is known as a stereotypical behavior. For an inquisitive, intelligent creature like the dolphin, a barren tank offers no exploratory stimuli compared to the vast, complex ocean.

What is the required amount of space for a captive dolphin to be happy? How big are the tanks that they live in when they are not doing shows?

The answer to this question is simple – any tank or enclosure is too small for a dolphin. According to US regulations, dolphin pens only need to be 30 x 30 feet and only six feet deep. With the current US standards, a dolphin would have to circle its pen more than 1,700 times everyday to simulate its natural swimming range in the wild! In warm weather such shallow water heats quickly. This can be extremely uncomfortable, and often deadly, for dolphins unable to escape to deeper, cooler waters. Not only is there no relief from the heat, but also the dolphin’s sensitive skin can be exposed to the sun’s scorching rays, causing blisters and sores. Also, in cement pools, chlorine is added to keep bacteria levels safe for humans. The levels of chlorine used, wreak havoc on a dolphin’s skin and eyes, sometimes even rendering them completely blind.

Just because standards exist, doesn’t mean that they’re appropriate, well enforced, or they ensure an acceptable quality of life for the dolphins. No facility can adequately simulate the vast ocean or provide for a dolphin’s needs. No captive program – no matter how large, well regulated, well funded, or well intentioned – can make a case for meeting a dolphin’s complex behavioral needs and no standard set by a government can be called sufficient.

How can you tell when dolphins are happy and enjoying doing what they are doing?

The dolphin’s toothy grin masks its suffering and contributes to the myth that dolphins in theme parks enjoy a happy life. In truth, dolphins cannot move their facial muscles to communicate inner feelings like humans can. Dolphins appear to smile even while injured or seriously ill. The smile is a feature of a dolphin’s anatomy unrelated to its health or emotional state.

Dolphins’ bodies are adapted to the aquatic environment. When dolphins beach themselves in the wild, they do so because they are sick, disoriented, injured or otherwise in some kind of distress. Many of the beached animals die from the resulting pressure and damage to their internal organs. A captive dolphin that lifts itself out of the water and onto a platform or stage has been trained to beach itself on command. The discomfort to the animal can be great and permanent injury is only avoided by the trainer recalling the animal to the water in time.

Bottom line is that the behaviors you encounter in a captive facility are not normal wild dolphin behavior. To watch really happy dolphins who are enjoying what they are doing, watch them in the wild in their natural habitat

Are dolphins happy and not lonely as long as they are with other dolphins?

Dolphins in captivity, forced to live with others of their species, do not always get along with their pool-mates. The dolphin pod is a very complex social unit. Dolphins in a pod share close social bonds with each other. To force a change in the composition of the pod may have dire implications for the hierarchy and structure. Simply providing them the company of other individuals of their species is no assurance that they will be happy and will not experience loneliness. Just like humans, dolphins are intelligent, thinking, feeling individuals.




How do they teach the dolphins to perform tricks?

Captive dolphin programs often train dolphins to perform tricks that people equate with human responses and emotions. Movement of the pectoral flippers is taken to mean that the dolphins are waving a greeting. Vocalizing seems to indicate that the animals are “speaking” to the crowd. Or, the dolphins swim directly up to tourists entering the water, apparently signaling their enthusiasm to interact. In reality, these are highly unnatural behaviors that hold no meaning for the animal and offer no insight into their state of mind.

Dolphins are trained to perform these tricks through ‘operant conditioning’. For many animals this means that satisfaction of hunger is dependent on performing tricks; for others, hunger is deliberately induced so the trainer will be effective. Though a complete food portion is ultimately provided each day, the use of food as a training tool reduces some animals to little more than beggars. This is particularly obvious when a trainer enters the holding area, carrying a bucket of fish. The dolphin’s eyes will remain fixed on the bucket, not on the trainer. It is easy to overlook this detail, as most audiences are watching and listening to the trainer. But in observing the dolphin’s body language, it is apparent that food is the motivator, not affection for the trainer, playfulness or an affinity for the crowd.

Do dolphins have to perform all the time or do they have ‘holidays’? Do they mind the loud music and loud noises of the crowd when they are doing shows?

Captive dolphins often work 12-hour days without a break. Whether it is performing for the public or participating in dolphin petting pool encounters, dolphins are forced to participate by conditioning. During performances or petting sessions, their ears are assaulted by blaring music and the noise of people splashing water or slapping the sides of the tank to get their attention. In petting pools and feeding programs, the dolphins’ health may be further compromised by people placing items such as sunglasses, cigarettes, stones, coins, food, and metal souvenirs into the mouths of dolphins. All of this takes a heavy toll on dolphins often resulting in stress-related illnesses and even death.

What happens to the dolphins if they decide that they don’t want to perform?

Dolphins in captivity are not given the option to end interactions or performances when they would like to. They are trained to perform through ‘operant conditioning’. For many animals this means that satisfaction of hunger is dependent on performing tricks; for others, hunger is deliberately induced so the trainer will be effective. Though a complete food portion is ultimately provided each day, the use of food as a training tool reduces some animals to little more than beggars who perform in exchange for food.

Sometimes dolphins express their frustration through aggression either to people, other dolphins, or by self mutilation. People would not dream of putting their children or themselves in a cage with wolves, lions, or tigers. This natural caution is lost around dolphins. Dolphins (including those born in captivity) are large, powerful predators, perfectly capable of harming humans. Examples of dolphin aggression include pushing people into deeper water, biting, and head-jerking. Injury reports document broken bones, skin abrasions and other injuries.

The public is taken in by the dolphin’s ‘smile’ and assumes they are gentle, willing playmates. But make no mistake – these are wild animals and the smile is simply an anatomical quirk; it is not a reflection of the dolphin’s emotional state.

In Nature…

Dolphins are free to move. Their bodies are built for speed and these fun-loving creatures take advantage of that fact. Never ones to lounge around, dolphins swim up to 40 miles per day. And because there are countless creatures to chase and a huge world to explore in the ocean, dolphins spend as much time as they can under water and only 10-20% on the surface. They can hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes and dive to depths of more than 1,640 feet (500 meters).

In Captivity…

Dolphins are restricted to the size of their tank or enclosure. (Imagine spending your entire life trapped in a prison cell the size of a closet.) Because US regulations only require that a pen be 30 feet long, a dolphin doesn’t get very far before it runs into a wall or wire fence. Captive dolphins, especially those kept in tanks, spend most their time in a sort of stupor, swimming repeatedly in small circles or simply lying motionless on the surface of the water.

In Nature…

Most dolphins spend their lives in the company of other dolphins in highly organized, close-knit units. Just like the rest of us, this intelligent and social creature craves safety, love and companionship, which it finds belonging to a pod. The social bonds within the pod may last for many years, especially between mothers and their young, who often stay together for as many as five years. And in this family, dolphin "aunts" have been known to serve as babysitters for busy moms.

In Captivity…

Dolphins are separated from their pods forever and the strong social bonds the dolphins have enjoyed and nurtured for years are abruptly destroyed. The capture is an extremely violent procedure, not only for the animal targeted for capture, but also for the pod that experiences the sudden and permanent loss of a family member.

Just as poignant is the experience of captive bred dolphins. These animals never have the chance to experience the comfort and pleasure of belonging to a family. They are doomed to emotional isolation. And the one close bond they do form – with their mothers – is broken far too soon, as they are often confined to separate pens or sold off to another park or aquarium.

In Nature…

Dolphins live in natural seawater.

In Captivity…

Most dolphins are confined in tanks, containing chemically-treated artificial seawater that wreaks havoc on their sensitive skin and eyes. But being in a tidal sea pen isn’t much better. These pens are usually in secluded areas, such as lagoons, where the water doesn’t circulate as much as it does in the open ocean. Dolphins excrete 4-5 times more waste than the average human. The result? They’re forced to swim around in their own toilets.

In Nature…

Dolphins are free to exercise their amazing gift of sonar. They use it to learn about the world around them. From exploring the intricacies and creatures hiding among coral reefs, to gathering information about the fish and other dolphins around them, to which predators might be lurking in the shadows. Their sonar tells them everything they need to know. The use of sonar is as important to dolphins as eyesight is to humans.

In Captivity…

Dolphins are restricted in using their sonar. It’s useless in chasing live fish, because they only have access to the dead fish handed out by the trainers as a "reward." They can’t put it to full use to explore their underwater world, because there’s nothing to explore in a barren, concrete tank. 

In Nature…

Dolphins spend many hours cooperatively chasing and catching fish. They’re also experts at foraging. This isn’t just a necessary exercise for the animals; it’s also fun. Dolphins being dolphins. Chasing and catching live prey enables them to let all of their natural skills unfold: their speed, their intelligence, their use of sonar and ability to communicate and cooperate.

In Captivity…

The first thing a dolphin learns is that it’s not allowed to be a real dolphin; it must restrict its natural exuberance and behaviors. Instead it has to toe the line and learn how to eat dead fish (which it would never dream of doing if free) and accept hand feeding. The natural thrill of chasing and catching its own food has been taken from the dolphin forever.

In Nature…

Mom knows best. A young dolphin’s mother teaches it everything it needs to live in the ocean: How to use sonar and avoid predators, where to look for food, and how to chase and catch fish. And it is by watching and mimicking the behaviors of the other dolphins in the pod that the young dolphin learns how to dive, leap, breach, surf the waves, and communicate.

In Captivity…

Dolphins are completely dependent on their trainers if they want to eat. This gives the trainer powerful weapon to control the dolphin and entice it to perform the tricks applauded by humans. The trainer makes a hungry dolphin understand that if it wants its food reward, it has to jump through a few hoops, so to speak. Do dolphins naturally walk on their tails, wave at the audience and take people for rides on their backs? No. And this training has a very damaging effect on the dolphins, as the unnatural behaviors eventually replace the natural ones.

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