The Training

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By Helene O'Barry

The performance of captive dolphins is achieved through a strictly controlled training method that takes advantage of the dolphins' hunger and total dependence on their trainers for food.

The dolphin captivity industry routinely makes the claim captive dolphins jump through hoops and play basketball because they like it.

For example, the dolphinarium Kolmarden of Sweden describes the dolphin show as "a brilliant performance leaving no one in doubt that the participants are thriving and having a great time. They jump through hoops and play ball. The dolphins even sing and dance!"

Dolphin trainer Susanne Adolfsson adds to the rosy picture by declaring that the performing dolphins "love every minute of it."

The deception that a performing dolphin is a happy dolphin is made possible in large part by the glossy, theatrical scenery of the dolphin spectacle. The water of the dolphins' tank is invitingly blue, the music is playing, and the ever-smiling dolphins jump trough hoops, play basketball and take their ever-smiling trainers for fast-speed rides around the tank. When the show is over and the music has stopped, the spectators go home amused - happily ignorant and therefore undisturbed by the spectacle of dominance they have just witnessed.

The fact is dolphins are wild animals whose natural behavioral repertoire does not include playing basketball, tail walking or singing and dancing. In order to train dolphins to perform these insane circus tricks, the trainer must first obtain complete control over them. This is accomplished by taking advantage of the captive dolphins' powerless predicament: They depend totally on their keepers to be fed. Once the hungry dolphins have surrendered to eating dead fish, the trainer teaches them that only when they perform a desired behavior; such as waving at the audience or tail walking, do they receive their reward: a fish. This is how abnormal behaviors are enforced in a dolphin.

The Anheuser-Busch theme park Sea World describes the use of food control this way: "Sea World trainers use food as a primary reinforcer during the training process. The reinforcer lets the animal know when it has performed the desired behavior."

In other words, captive dolphins are encoded through food control to perform.

Sea World continues: "It is important that the animal knows immediately when it performs the desired behavior. A delay of even a few seconds may accidentally reinforce an undesired behavior."

When watching a dolphin show you may notice how the dolphin trainer at intervals blows a whistle. This is the immediate signal to the dolphin that he performed the trick properly, and the trainer subsequently rewards the dolphin with a fish. When the dolphin doesn't perform the trick to his trainer's satisfaction, there is no sound of a whistle - and the dolphin isn't fed.

The captivity industry calls this training method positive reward. From the dolphin's perspective, however, it's food deprivation.

Time and again dolphin trainers will tell the public that their relationship with dolphins is based on cooperation and mutual understanding, as if they and the captive dolphins form one big, happy family. As phrased by the dolphinarium of Sweden: "Communication works! We do in fact understand each other."

Disguising food control as communication is obviously an essential part of the captive-dolphin spectacle, and it's ironic how the very tricks the dolphins are encoded to perform become the most convincing basis of the illusion. Just a few examples: When the dolphins "walk" on their tail and "play" basketball, the spectators predictably interpret the dolphins' behavior as fun-loving playfulness. And when the dolphins "kiss" their trainers, applaud at their own tricks with their pectoral fins, and eagerly nod their heads in agreement to questions like "are we having fun?" it adds very human-like traits to the dolphins, leaving the audience with the false notion that there does indeed exist a common language between the dolphins and their trainers. To the performing dolphins, of course, the trained behaviors hold no other meaning than that of being the key to obtaining a fish. No doubt, keeping the dolphins a little hungry induces them to continue performing in order to be fed.

Dolphin trainers often, even proudly, make the statement that dolphins are "very fast learners." What they're really saying is that whoever holds the bucket of fish holds a tremendous power over the dolphins, in that a hungry dolphin will do almost anything for food. And as a Cuban dolphin trainer quite bluntly admitted during an undercover interview: "If the dolphins aren't hungry, you can forget about making them jump for you."

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Photo copyright Helene O'Barry - source: www.dolphinproject.orgPhoto copyright Helene O'Barry - source: www.dolphinproject.orgPhoto copyright Helene O'Barry - source:



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