Photo Credit: mrkathika via Compfight cc
There has always been a murky side to animal captivity, whether oriented ostensibly to education, research and conservation, such as zoos, or the less noble aspirations of commercial entertainment parks, where an array of species, from seals to dolphins and orca whales, are disciplined and trained to perform synchronised tricks for the brief amusement of paying spectators. Perhaps it is the virtually unanimous, dispirited air that the animals seem to have when viewed from the other side of the looking glass.

The ersatz habitats seem so poor compared to the bustling profusion of life seen in Attenborough’s documentaries; the lone, dangling tyre in a chimpanzee enclosure is dour and unused; the predatory cats, the celebrities of these enclosures, lack their instinctual grace and wallow in faux-savannah. It would appear that far from being examples of nature’s inter-dependence, where life is mutually assured in the to and fro and tussle of the ecosystem, these animals have been kidnapped to serve as trophies for our self-congratulatory dominance as a species. One almost thinks they ought to have been spared the indignity and purgatory of captivity, and instead have been committed to the dubious and macabre art of taxidermy, their heads placed above the mantelpieces of princes, amongst the other countless animals that have shared a similar fate.

Solutions to, and criticisms of, captivity have always been controversial due to the predictable political backlash that arises whenever revenue is threatened. Nevertheless, the reported near-release of two theme park dolphins from Korea has been seen as a step forward in the concerted attempt to resettle captive animals back into their original habitats.

Readers of Concord Vet Blog would be pleased to know that two Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins named Taesan and Boksoon are the two most recent theme park dolphins slated for release into the wild. This has followed an unusual flurry of releases across the world following the successful implementation of new strategies for equipping the animals with skills to survive in the wild.

The dolphins had a bumpy, nostalgic road on their return to the ocean. They were initially illegally kidnapped between 2009 and 2010 somewhere off the coastal island of Jeju, where they were sold to the “Pacific Land” entertainment park. A bitterly fought legal battle culminated in the country’s Supreme Court ordering their release. They were held at Seoul Grand Zoo for two years where they were exposed to a specially designed rehabilitation program. The two performed incredibly well despite initial concerns over observed lethargy and sickness, and indeed, despite the objections of marine park authorities who have consistently claimed that wild-caught dolphins and whales would make an ill-fated transition to the wild. Taesan and Boksoon are now awaiting release in a “sea-pen retirement sanctuary”. Here, they will be tested on their ability to forage for prey independently, a crucial skill given how cossetted they were by trainers in the parks.

An estimated 2,900 dolphins are held in captivity, with the vast majority of them having been captured in the wild. Despite the auspicious achievements of the rehabilitation programs, the clout of the marine park industry means that the future release of captive animals is, for the time being, unlikely. Nevertheless, Taesan and Boksoon are months away from joining a pod of 120 other dolphins, and navigating their new undersea home far from the gaze and hand-fed reward of human handlers.