PROTOCOL FOR THE READAPTATION AND RELEASE OF TWO
CAPTIVE ATLANTIC BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS (Turslops truncatus) KNOWN AS
BUCK AND LUTHER
by Richard O'Barry
Though each dolphin is different and the return of captive dolphins to their
natural habitat is perhaps more an art than science, there are, nevertheless,
criteria for release. Over the past twenty-five years, I have been involved in
the readaptation, rehabilitation and release of more than a dozen dolphins.
This is not to say that all captive dolphins can or should be returned
to their natural homes. But all captive dolphins may be readapted to a more
normal environment, to a natural sea lagoon, for example. This would provide
the dolphin with the natural rhythm of the sea; the odes, the currents and
exposure to living fish. All of this is therapeudic and improves the quality
of life for the captive. At this point the dolphin may be a candidate for
release depending on several factors:
1. Health and physical condition
2. Use of sonar
3. Ability to catch fish
4. Defensive skills against predators
Most dolphins born in what we call "the wild" are candidates for
readaptation and release. But not all of them. Some dolphins have been in
captivity too long and have forgotten or lost the skills needed to survive in
what was once their home. Habitat dictates behavior. Captivity has
destroyed something vital in their lives, something that, were they human, we
would call "spirit." For them, it's too late.
Some years ago, for instance, I had occasion to study a dolphin in Nassau who
had been in captivity for a long time and was now quite mad. They called him
"Big Boy" and he spent much of his time ramming his head against the wooden
entrance to his sea pen. On one side of the wooden gate was the area where he
was protected, admired and watched with fascination, sometimes by hundreds of
people. He was fed all he wanted to eat and was clearly master of his world.
On the other was the sea, his natural home. And as I watched him banging his
head against the gate one day, I wondered if it would be possible to readapt
him to the wild again. What would happen if we simply let him go? In the old
days at the Miami Seaquarium when we no longer needed a particular dolphin, we
put him in a sling, carried him out to the seawall and simply dumped him into
Biscayne Bay. In the industry this is called a "Dump and Run." This happened
to Pedro, for instance, a huge male dolphin who became too hard to handle. How
he fared in the waters off Miami, nobody knows.
But Big Boy was quite another problem dolphin. Captivity had turned him into
a mental cripple. If we could readapt him, I thought, we could readapt any
dolphin. But the longer I watched, the more I realized that we were too late.
He'd had too much of it. I don't mean mistreatment. I never saw anyone
deliberately mistreat Big Boy. In fact, I saw the reverse of that. What I saw
was an excess of "love." Everybody wanted to be with him, to touch him and
talk to him; in short, everybody wanted to "help" the big old dolphin. But
nobody knew how. And so, day after day, always smiling but full of rage, the
big dolphin banged his head as if to get free again; a stressed out dolphin who
was uncooperative, unpredictable, suspicious and dangerous, a dolphin filled
with so much hate that I knew I could never reach him.
What caused this to happen? Human intervention and stress. This always plays
a leading part in the death of captive dolphins. Stress is the result of not
enough space, too many people and having to play the fool too long. It is also
the result of having to live in artificial world without tides, without the
tastes and sounds of the ocean, and without anything that normally makes life
worth living. When we try to turn dolphins into pets or "companion animals,"
it doesn't ever work. This is hard to realize when it's happening. The
dolphin seems to want to be a pet. He's always smiling - seems to be laughing.
He seeks us out to be petted and played with. And when we're not around, he
seems lost. All this just like a real pet. But this is an illusion. Dolphins
are forever wild, created by nature to play a role in nature, not to play silly
games in a tiny pool for our amusement.
An apparent exception to this are dolphins born in captivity. There is no
"returning" them to their natural habitat. They have none. A few of these
so-called "battery dolphins" have been "trained" to act like wild ones and
they've been released into the sea. But until this procedure has been
carefully monitored over time, we should consider each case on its own
KNOWING DOLPHINS IN NATURE
The key to readapting and returning captive dolphins to the wild is knowing
dolphin is like in his natural habitat. If you know that, then you can
recognize the dolphin's learned behavior in captivity.
What are some of these? Watch a dolphin show for five minutes and you'll see
virtually all of it. When the trainer comes out with a bucket of dead fish, the
dolphin gets excited and swims in circles. He leaps out of the water with
excitement, comes down and lies on his back, paddling around with his flukes
and flapping his pectoral fins as if clapping. When the trainer squats down to
get a fish, the dolphin swims up and begs for food, making squeaky sounds and
bobbing his head up and down, showing no fear even if there are hundreds of
All of this behavior is learned. The wild dolphin never does these things in
nature because they would be irrelevant and without purpose. Now, though, when
we are readapting the captive dolphin, these learned behaviors are quite
significant. Indeed, we should make note of them because in preparing the
dolphin to live once more in his natural environment, we can watch and keep
score as we extinguish these behaviors one by one.
When we talk about "extinguishing" a behavior learned in captivity, it sounds
like we're throwing water on a fire. Actually we're simply no longer paying
the dophin to do them. He learned to do these behaviors in the first place
because we paided him to do them. When the dolphin swims up to the feeding
station, sticks his head up and bobs it up and down while making
a squeaking noise, we paid him to do each part of that behavior by tossing him
a fish. That's how you reinforce behavior in a dolphin. So now, if we want to
stop that behavior, we stop paying him. And very soon he stops doing it.
Because we no longer pay him, it is irrelevant behavior - irrelevant both here
and in the world we want him to live in. Again, habitat dictates behavior. At
the same time, behavior that has survival value in the wild is reinforced and
the dolphin, over time, is ready to return to his natural habitat.
When I put a Team together to help me rehabilitate a dolphin. I tell them
basic job is to "empower" the dolphin. When the dolphin is captured, I tell
them, he loses his power. He is like a prisoner. And now it is for us to
return his power to him. I tell the Team that in restoring the dolphin to his
rightful place there are three things they should keep in mind:
1. Assume that you know nothing
2. Maintain sustained observation
3. Consider the obvious
These are subtle and very difficuft instructions to follow, especially the
first one and especially for former dolphin trainers. Before former trainers
can step into the arena, they must strip away their own teamed behavior. This
is especially difficult for former trainers because their whole experience with
dolphins has been putting on a show, and now this, to them, is the
"readaptation show." They want to be part of the act, and at times it seems as
if they expect applause. This is just the reverse of how we prepare a dolphin
for living in his natural world. We are not putting on a show. We're putting
on a non-show, and the less we do the better.
There is no shortcut to the sustained observation phase. This is not
research; this is a technique. One must eat with the dolphins, sleep
with them, and be with them constantly.
We call this "dolphin time." How do you learn it? Not by merely reading about
it. You have to experience it. Like anything else, whether science or art, you learn
how to do it from someone who already knows. Then you know when you are in
tune with them. You can feel it. If they gain ten pounds or lose ten
pounds, you know it. We need to see exactly what is happening with the
dolphins, not what we say is happening. This is not easy for people. It is
like an exercise n Zen. It's non-verbal. It means we lose ourselves and
become one with the dolphin. When I'm doing it, I live in a tent next to the
dolphins and I can feel myself become part of the scenery, like one of the
trees, a leaf floating on the water, or a heron who simply comes and goes.
When I don't respond to the dolphins learned behavior, eventually they give it
up. And everything I do is without words. I have to make reports, of course,;
that and the few directions I sometimes give are the only exceptions. But
living with the dolphins on the silent level gives you an insight into dolphins
that I think is necessary to understanding them and helping them become who and
what they are. We think we already know who these dolphins are, for example,
because we have their names, we know where they came from, what they eat and
how much they weigh. But none of this tells us who they are. In order to know
them on that level, we must go beyond words. Beyond descriptions.
All of this is to eliminate false words and false theories about what we are
doing. When we strip away our previous thinking, throw out our theories and
substitute what we know for sure from our sustained observation, we can begin
to see the dolphins as they really are and can better assess their
survivability back in nature.
THE RELEASE SYSTEM
Before anything can be done, the entire Release System must be in place. The
Release System is in five parts: (1) The Right People, (2) The Right Dolphins,
(3) The Readaptation Process, (4) Transportation, and (5) Post-Release
THE RIGHT PEOPLE
1. The Director of Readaptation and Release, a recognized authority, knows
dolphins both in captivity and in their natural habitat. He or she needs to be
an authority because much of the job is dealing with local and federal
authorrties and the public through the media. He or she must also have
hands-on experience in marine mammal husbandry (i.e. care, feeding and
transporting of captive dolphins).
2. The Project Manager deals wrth the permitting process involved in
scouting for locations, population studies of resident dolphins near the
Half-Way House. He or she manages the Staff and daily affairs, which include
record-keeping and documentation of the project.
3. Helpers and Volunteers will be hands-on in the population studies and the
postrelease tracking of the dolphins. They will also be responsible for
gathering suitable live fish for the dolphins.
4. The Veterinarian of Record, a qualified marine mamnal veterinarian, should
assess the health and fitness of the dolphins, be present during the transport
and available in case of emergency.
THE RIGHT DOLPHINS
Buck and Luther were captured originally in the late 1980's and, unlike most
captive dolphins, have never lived in an artificial habitat. They are both
males and have always lived in an environment that included live fish, tides
and currents. During their captivity, minimal demands were made of them as
show animals. And both were about eight years of age when captured.
This means that when they were captured they had already developed skills
needed to survive in the wild, including the avoidance of predators.
THE READAPTATION PROCESS
Is it necessary to return captive dolphins to the very place they were
captured? It is often desirable, perhaps, but not always necessary. The
readapted captive male dolphins cannot be expected to rejoin their original
family pod. Even if they had not been captured, they probably would not remain
with their pod because male dolphins at maturity normally find or form their
own pods, sometimes bachelor pods, with groups of females and their offspnng,
or both males and females traveling together. We also sornetimes find singular
dolphins who have either chosen to be alone or were ostracized from their
So it's a mistake to think that we must return dolphins to the very place
they were first captured. In fact, if the water in which they were captured
had become polluted or poisoned during their absence or if fish they normally
ate were no longer plentiful, we would not want to return them there. A search
of the literature indicates that there is no empirical scientific documentation
to substantiate the claim that dolphins must be returned to the exact spot of
Dolphins are quite adaptable and can readily accommodate themselves to a new
home range if it is similar to the site where they were captured -
similar in terms of tides, currents, extremes of water temperature, food supply
and potential predators.
Our team will arrange for capturing enough local prey fish for them to
practice catching and eating. Water quality tests of the region have also been
conducted and are available.
One of the most important functions in rehabilitabng Buck and Luther is to
maintain a proper feeding regimen. The main objective is for them to maintain
proper body weight by foraging and eating only live fish. This is a gradual
process which may be viewed in four phases:
1. Encouraging the dolphins to eat with their heads underwater and the
introducton of live fish.
2. Eliminating interaction with the feeder by varying feeding times and
3. Dolphins eating only live fish.
4. And once again becoming opportunistic foragers.
In Phase 1, all activities are done from a regular feeding station, both live
and dead fish to be offered only when the dolphins' heads are underwater. We
continue feeding them dead fish but include live ones just to acquaint them,
tossing the fish randomly at short distances, gradually increasing the distance
and discouraging the dolphins from feeding with their heads out of water.
In Phase 2, we gradually wean the dolphins from their usual feeding regimen by
tossing both dead and live fish from different locations and at different
times. By now we are behind a blind to keep the dolphins from seeing us. We
don't want them to associate feeding with the feeder.
We always toss live fish toward the center of the pen so the dolphins have a
better chance to catch the fish before it escapes through the fence.
Sornetimes it is necessary, initally, to trim the fins of the fish so that the
fish will not escape.
Feeding becomes more random and uncertain. We now toss dead and live fish
from behind a blind at all hours, including early morning and after dark. In
the water we have a hydrophone so that we can rnonitor the dolphins' use of
sonar in finding fish, especially live fish. We can compare audio recordings
of confirmed catches during the day with night feedings.
We increase the number of feeding sessions, decreasing the quantity of fish
per session. Short, quick feeding sessions from varied locations and at all
hours will discourage the dolphins from searching for the feeder.
In Phase 3, which is to reach and maintain a diet of only live fish, we must
first make sure we can provide enough live fish for the dolphins. We need a
good source of fish species indigenous to the release site. We analyze these
for nutritional value and, in figuring the dolphins' total diet, allow for the
energy used in chasing live fish.
While continuing to feed the dolphins at various times and from various
places, we now increase the proportion of live fish. When the dolphins are
eating mostly live fish, we introduce them in groups of 10 or 15, creating a
"school" of fish, which adds realism and forces the dolphins to select the prey
they will chase down.
Finally, in Phase 4, we eliminate the human element from feeding and encourage
the dolphins to forage on their own. We constantly introduce live fish into
the pen and keep track of the dolphins' rate of consumption, finally replacing
dead fish in their diet with live indigenous fish such as mullet. When the
dolphins are ready to venture out of the pen they make it very clear to those
who can read their body language.
Transportation of the dolphins will follow guidelines established by the U.S.
The dolphins will have been freeze-branded during the readaptation stage.
Buck's freeze-brand will be in the shape of a heart and Luther's freeze-brand
will be in the shape of a fivepointed star to aid in visual identification.
Radio-tracking devices have been determined to be invasive and provides sites
for future infection. Radio telemetry devices have not proved to be reliable
in the past.