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As a Former Marineland Trainer, I Can Tell You That Dolphins Feel

01/24/2014 05:41 EST | Updated 03/26/2014 05:59 EDT

The largest dolphin roundup in recent history has come to an end in Taiji, Japan, as the "lucky ones" not selected for captivity or slaughter have been driven back to sea in the same fashion that they were first corralled into the infamous killing cove.

All said, 52 dolphins were taken captive (to be sold to international aquariums) and 40 were slaughtered for their meat. Knowing what we know about the social nature and emotional capacity of dolphins, it's fair to estimate that many of the released ones will die from trauma and despair.

Of the 52 captives, despair will most likely also be their "inexplicable" cause of death.

This assertion may seem bold, but as a former marine mammal trainer of 12 years at Marineland of Canada, I can attest to the grief and suffering these sentient beings experience. Many of the wild-caught animals we received did not make the transition into captivity. No amount of medical treatment could alleviate their grief, and no blood work could reveal its source. Simply stated, they no longer had the will to live.

Back in 2001, Marineland imported six Black Sea bottlenose dolphins. Among them was an elderly male the Russian hunters named Sam. Sam was a big boy -- thick and strong. His dorsal fin had been branded (something you can note on all of Marineland's dolphins). He wore his blueprint-like scarred skin as a trophy of what was once a proud existence. He was likely a grandfather. He definitely was a warrior, as dolphins this big certainly don't eat scraps. What Sam lacked was that certain naïveté required by young animals to make the transition into captivity possible.

The process of transitioning wild animals into their new captive homes begins with getting them to eat the half-frozen, dead fish we provided. As the animals are reluctant to get close to the trainers, the fish is thrown to them and documented for daily diet records. Ideally, the dolphins (over time) are conditioned to their new realities, becoming the entertainers people pay handsomely to watch perform and/or swim with. This would not become of Sam however, as he never voluntarily took the fish.

In an effort to keep Sam alive, we would drain his pool daily, force-feed him fish and inject antibiotics into his back. We would wrap the top and bottom of his rostrum with wringed out towels, pry open his mouth and push frozen fish to the back of his throat. The intrusive and painful nature of this method proved arduous to Sam, who in time would accept the frozen fish without the pre-described pry and push, but never without having to drop the water and coax him to eat.

Despite what we believed to be Sam's progress, he would soon die in a Niagara Falls warehouse, void of any natural light, and without any known members of his family. A cause of death was never provided to trainers, nor would it be needed. This old man could not live with the trauma of his experiences. He would not indulge a life without his family and freedom. Sam truly was a warrior.

While drawn lines may divide our properties, states, provinces and countries, the same rules do not apply to our peaceful, non-human ocean dwellers. Our culture and politics do not apply in their utopia, however the effects of this past weekend's atrocity will forever reverberate in their world. The "lucky ones" spared from death for lives in captivity along with those released after witnessing their family members slaughtered are now left to wonder if in fact they're better off at all.

Sam didn't think so, nor will others.

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