Responding to charges in "The Cove," the theme park says it is concerned about dolphins' welfare.
Might a ticket you purchased to a marine-life theme park be partly responsible for an annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan?
That's an assertion made in a controversial new documentary, one that suggests that all "captive dolphin" parks where people watch trained wild animals perform are actually, in the words of an activist, "rewarding bad behavior."
In "The Cove," a film crew manages to document Taiji's annual "drive fishery," which rounds up "pest" dolphins, sells some to overseas theme parks and then slaughters an estimated 23,000 others, often passing off the meat as whale to unsuspecting Japanese consumers. Even though no U.S. theme parks have been allowed to import dolphins or other marine mammals from drive fisheries since 1993, Sea World and other U.S. parks are criticized in the movie for not working to stop the drives.
Captures for marine animal parks outside the United States are "the underpinning that supports the slaughter of dolphins," says Miami dolphin activist Ric O'Barry, trainer of TV's original Flipper. His protests are the focal point of "The Cove."
Fred Jacobs, vice president for communications for Sea World, says that in the 1980s Sea World "saved" some animals from Japanese drive fisheries. Today, he says, "we do not purchase animals from Taiji or any other Japanese drive fishery." Sea World now acquires its dolphins from captive-dolphin births and from rescuing distressed animals.
In "The Cove," Sea World is cited as an offender by association.
Sea World, "the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums are opposed to the drive fishery," Jacobs says.
But O'Barry, who has spent decades trying to force such associations to stop allowing members in the Caribbean and elsewhere outside the United States to buy drive-fisheries animals, calls such opposition "toothless."
"This is an industry of hypocrites, and I hope that this film exposes them," O'Barry says.
Naomi Rose, senior scientist with the U.S. Humane Society, also sees a connection between U.S. marine theme parks and the Japanese drive fisheries.
"In my opinion, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which have all condemned the drives in policy statements, are all talk and no action. They made these policy statements -- only after feeling pressure -- and then have done nothing else," such as "sanctioning members that buy from the drives."
Along with stopping the drive fisheries, "The Cove's" filmmakers hope to make viewers question whether their favorite marine theme park might be encouraging the drives, even tacitly, by failing to stop association members from purchasing these dolphins.
Jacobs says he can't see "how any reasonable person could reach the conclusion that visiting Sea World -- where 80 percent of the marine mammals are captive-born -- encourages the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. On the contrary, seeing and learning about dolphins in places like Sea World creates a heightened awareness of and respect for these animals."
O'Barry laughs at that.
"Their arguments about how 'We only protect what we know, so we need captive dolphins to sensitize the public to the animals' makes sense until you go to Japan, where there are 50 dolphinariums all over the country -- but they're the country where they slaughter them."
"Cove" director Louis Psihoyos says he is content to let "The Cove" speak for itself, to allow viewers to make the connection.
"We're showing people what the Japanese government doesn't want you -- or people in Japan -- to see. It's a bigger crime against nature than we ever expected. We're letting the film do the work."