South Korean Captive Dolphins have a Shot at Freedom
In First-of-its-Kind Ruling, Judge Orders Release of Five Captive Dolphins
South Korea could be well on it’s way to becoming a dolphin-friendly nation. Like many other countries, it has captive facilities where dolphins are made to perform degrading tricks and live in unbearably small tanks. But a recent ruling on the case of five illegally captured bottlenose dolphins is making waves in the country’s animal rights, as well as animal industry, circles.
Photo courtesy of Ryu Woo Jong
Pacific Land, a theme park on the south coast of Jeju Island, is an abysmal prison for it’s captive dolphins — 11 of which were illegally purchased from local fishermen between 2009 and 2010, according to local activists. Of these, five remain alive and on perpetual display in a tank that is smaller than an Olympic-sized swimming pool. When they are not performing, they are forced to live in an underground holding pool, meaning that these dolphins have been living for years without ever seeing natural daylight.
The good news is that last month the president and a director of the park, known only by their last names Heo and Koh, were found guilty of buying the illegally caught dolphins. The duo have been sentenced to eight months in prison, fined US $8,760 and – most importantly – ordered to release the five surviving dolphins back to their natural habitat.
The ruling is the first of its kind in South Korea, which had no animal welfare laws until 1991. It comes on the heels of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s order for the release and rehabilitation of a male dolphin at Seoul Grand Park, a major theme park in Korea’s capital city. The dolphin, named Jedoli, is one of the 11 Pacific Land had bought from fishermen.
Seoul Grand Park, which had traded two sea lions with Pacific Land for Jedoli, had been receiving a lot of flack for keeping an illegally caught dolphin. In a move to appease outspoken animal rights groups, the park suspended its dolphin show in March. However, in a move typical of the captivity industry, public viewings have recently been recommenced under the guise of being “eco shows” aimed at educating the public about marine mammals. It is well known that there is nothing educational about captivity. As Ric O’Barry, campaign director at the Dolphin Project, has pointed out: “Dolphin shows are as educational about dolphins as Mickey Mouse is about real mice”.
Mayor Park Won-soon has earmarked 870 million won ($765,000 US) for Jedoli’s rehabilitation and release, which might take about a year. Hyung-ju, a member of the Korean Animal Welfare Association, argues that the Pacific Land dolphins should be included in this release as well. “They were trained to bury their survival instincts... but as they have been with humans for only a couple of years… we think they have high chances for adaptation.”
While some groups are calling for Pacific Land to foot the significant bill, Hyung says that her group plans to raise the funds themselves, should it be necessary.
Predictably, Pacific Land’s Heo and Koh are appealing the verdict against them and the park, which carries the unfortunate possibility of up to two years’ delay before the Korean Supreme Court rules on the case — meaning a long, painful and potentially fatal legal limbo for the dolphins.
In order to expedite matters, the Korean Animal Welfare Association has arranged a special forum in Seoul to raise public awareness about the cruelty of exhibiting dolphins and other wild animals. They have invited O’Barry and animal welfare experts to discuss the required procedure for releasing dolphins into the wild successfully — something that the captivity industry is sure to oppose tooth and nail.
One of the big factors contributing to dolphins’ continuing abuse in South Korea, is that the the state body responsible for regulating cetacean catches — Korean Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry (FAFF) — only has control over if, and by what sort of organization, marine mammals can be harvested. FAFF can approve marine mammal capture "for educational performance and exhibition" after it evaluates the animals and the organization wanting to use them. It has no say in how they will ultimately be cared for.
The captive dolphins’ fate now rests in the hands of the South Korean Supreme Court.