The National Aquarium in Baltimore may be the first facility in the United States to close its dolphin exhibit as part of proactive and forward-thinking strategic planning, rather than external pressures. Other facilities have eliminated their dolphin exhibits over the years—including the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, the Minnesota Zoo, and the New England Aquarium in Boston—but these closures were due to attrition (having only one or two dolphins left out of a once larger group) and/or prohibitive costs to upgrade aging infrastructure.
The announcement by the National Aquarium, which still has eight dolphins on display, comes about two years after it ended scheduled dolphin performances in favor of continuous and unstructured interactions between trainers and dolphins. The Aquarium is considering several options for the dolphins’ future, including retirement to an ocean-based enclosure, similar to wildlife sanctuaries that care for retired circus and zoo animals.
This progressive move by a key attraction on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a sign of the times. People are slowly but surely coming to an awareness that cetaceans—such as bottlenose dolphins, belugas, and orcas—do not thrive in captivity. The high-energy dolphin and whale shows that are still far too often the mainstay of an aquarium or oceanarium, and their increasingly obvious similarity to circus performances, make a growing proportion of the general public uncomfortable. What was once a happy spectacle now seems too loud, too silly, and just too much.
We need to support moves like those proposed by the National Aquarium and continue to push more circuses and aquariums to follow suit.