Thrusting itself to the forefront of a debate about keeping dolphins and whales in captivity, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, has announced that it is considering retiring its eight bottlenose dolphins and moving them to an oceanside sanctuary.
The proposed move comes at a time when the aquarium is shifting its overall mission from being mainly a tourist attraction to becoming a major conservation organization with national recognition.
Although the final decision about the dolphins has yet to be made, John Racanelli, the National Aquarium's director, said in a press statement, "we are studying and evaluating all possible options for providing them with the best possible living environment in the years ahead."
The aquarium has already hired Studio Gang Architects from Chicago to explore preliminary designs and has discussed the overall plan with several dolphin and whale biologists.
And the news—even if not final—is being widely celebrated. "I applaud them for considering ALL options, including the idea of retiring the animals to a sea pen," Naomi Rose, a cetacean biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, wrote in an email to National Geographic.
Such a sanctuary, if built, would be the first of its kind.
"It's time for kudos," says Lori Marino, an Emory University neuroscientist and expert on dolphin cognition who has argued that keeping cetaceans in public aquariums is wrong. The aquarium is "clearly responding to the scientific evidence about dolphins' cognitive complexity and how they fare in captivity, and to public opinion."
Dolphins and other marine mammals kept in captivity suffer from chronic stress and behavioral abnormalities, such as odd repetitive movements, self-mutilation, and aggression, Marino explains.
Ironically, some of the research establishing dolphins' higher mental abilities has been done with the National Aquarium's animals. Diana Reiss, an animal cognition researcher at Hunter College in New York City, has worked with the younger dolphins to discover at what age they develop a sense of self-awareness.
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