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South Korea Theme Park Forced to Return Dolphins Back to the Sea

Dolphins' journey to freedom highlights ethical issues of keeping cetaceans in captivity

In a landmark ruling, the South Korean supreme court has ordered Pacific Land, a dolphinarium on the south coast of Jeju Island, to free four of its dolphins.

dolphin rescue A dolphin being transfered out of the Pacific Land facility. The theme park originally bought 11
illegally. By the time the courts finally ordered their release, seven had died. Of the four remaining,
two are in critical condition.

Between 2009 and 2010, Pacific Land Illegally purchased 11 dolphins from fishermen, without the approval of the Korean Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. The ministry is supposed to approve marine mammal capture "for educational, performance, and exhibition" after it evaluates the animals and the organization wanting to use them. Pacific Lands had not given the ministry the opportunity to evaluate the dolphins.

“These dolphins are being kept in abysmal conditions, with barely enough room to dive in their cramped tank. They are good candidates for release and so they should be returned to the ocean.” says Ric O’Barry, director of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project.  O’Barry had been invited by the Korean Animal Welfare Association to assess the condition of the dolphins and make recommendations for their rehabilitation and release back into the ocean.

Only five of the original 11 dolphins survived at the time the courts initially ordered their forfeiture last November. Pacific Land appealed that decision, and another dolphin died in the ensuing administrative delay.  This is a typical pattern, as most dolphins do not do well in captivity.  The supreme court hearing, in January resulted in a “Recommendation for Comprise” ruling decreeing that Pacific Land give up ownership of the dolphins.

On April 3, the four remaining dolphins were confiscated. Two of the dolphins are in critical  condition and are refusing to eat. Last Saturday, April 6 they were sent to Seoul Zoo, where they are being force fed so that they may gain weight in order to be released into a sea pen for further rehabilitation and eventual release. That same day, the two healthy dolphins were sent to a temporary sea pen, returning to the ocean for the first time in almost three years.

This case highlights important ethical questions, namely whether dolphins should continue to be treated as property under the law. Scientific discoveries over the last five decades clearly demonstrate that dolphins and whales share many traits that were once believed as belonging exclusively to humans. Their brains are among the largest in the animal kingdom, allowing for higher-order thinking such as abstract thought and logical reasoning as well as for highly developed emotional centers. In addition, there are numerous accounts of dolphins demonstrating altruistic and compassionate behaviors, such as rescuing imperiled humans and animals  and aiding injured members of their own. There’s also documented evidence of dolphins exhibiting what appears to be grieving behaviors.

Despite this knowledge, under the law, dolphins are allocated the same rights as the bouncing balls they are forced to perform tricks with. They are exploited for money and unequivocally denied all rights, even the basic ones of life, liberty, and freedom from bodily harm. It is inherently wrong for dolphins to have zero protections, given their striking cognitive capacities.

It is fortunate that the courts allowed these four individuals to regain their freedom and their lives; however this ruling didn’t have to do with compassion or understanding for the dolphins themselves — rather it was merely the way that they were procured that contravened the law. Pacific Land has since ordered more captives to replace those lost. The Korean government should consider a ban on dolphinariums and stop the import of wild dolphins, as other countries have done.

It is hoped that all four dolphins will soon be transferred to a specially constructed sea pen and eventually released back into the ocean.

Laura Bridgeman
Laura Bridgeman is director of Sonar, an organization that advocates for dolphin and whale personhood, and Campaign & Communications Specialist at Earth Island's International Marine Mammal Project.

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