The Great Dolphin Dilemma and the San Diego Connection

by on February 5, 2019 · 0 comments

in Military, Ocean Beach, San Diego

CORONADO, Calif. (Oct. 13, 2010) Marine mammal handler Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Manuel Gonzalez and a bottlenose dolphin, both assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 1.Navy photo by Lt. David Bennett

For years, animal rights advocates have waged war against the US Navy for its use of dolphins in warfare and research. Is a resolution possible?

by Lina Zeldovich / Hakai Magazine  / February 5, 2019

1. The Great Divide

Michele Bollo stood on Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge, close to the US Navy base in Point Loma, San Diego, looking through a video camera trained on a network of pens in the water below. The nine-by-nine-meter ocean corrals held 70 dolphins and 30 sea lions belonging to the US Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP). Bollo was there to document how the navy treated the animals.

One animal, a 46-year-old bottlenose dolphin named Makai, once deployed to find mines in the Persian Gulf during the 2003 Iraq War, was sick and unable to swim. To keep him from drowning, veterinarians had placed him in a full-body flotation device. A few months later, Bollo recorded another dolphin encased in the same outfit. Through the scorching sun and freezing wind, the 65-year-old California retiree filmed Makai and the other dolphin for over five months in 2016 and 2017.

A passionate animal advocate, Bollo maintains that the two dolphins were so sick they should have been euthanized. Instead, she insists, they were kept alive for those learning how to care for sick dolphins. “[The dolphins] were tube fed, and they were given IV fluids, and their blood was drawn,” Bollo says. She adds that captive dolphins trained for human use have no quality of life—and it broke her heart to watch and film the dolphins’ ordeal day after day.

Marine mammal advocate Michele Bollo’s footage of US Navy dolphins in their temporary pens near Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge in Point Loma, San Diego.

Bollo’s goal over those months was to publicly highlight the dolphins’ plight. Under normal circumstances, the dolphins reside within the navy’s compound and the public can view them only by boat or when the navy exercises them in the open ocean. But in 2016, because of a construction project, the navy moved its dolphins into the temporary pens near the bridge. Bollo and her colleague Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer turned fervent marine mammal freedom fighter based in Florida, saw their chance to expose the dolphins’ misfortunes. They organized protests and convinced San Diego’s Channel 8 news to pay a visit and report.

The view from the bridge gave Bollo—and Rector when he watched the video—one perspective on the scene unfolding below. But there’s another view—from pen-side—of what was playing out on the water.

The US Navy sees these dolphins as part of the country’s defense system, and navy personnel treat marine mammals like crew members. The dolphins Bollo filmed weren’t helpless research subjects, they were sick crew members receiving medical treatment, says Mike Rothe, director of the NMMP. “From the earliest days, we considered our animals as partners,” Rothe says, adding that if your partners are sick, you give them the best medical care possible in hopes that they recover.

Rothe and his colleagues see the dolphins as individuals—“We are close to the animals, and we take care of them and love them”—but they also see them as vital parts of mine warfare and the country’s strategic systems.

Military use of dolphins dates to the early 1970s, when the navy deployed the animals during the Vietnam War. In 2014, the navy began exploring the use of underwater robots for mine detection, but the technology is still evolving. Dolphins remain on watch because they continue to outcompete robots in mine detection and patrolling vulnerable waters.

Bollo and Rector—unaffiliated with specific animal welfare groups—see the navy’s actions as exploitive and immoral. The navy sees its work as important, moral, and paramount to the safety of American citizens. Both sides state that they care about the animals, albeit in different ways.

When Bollo describes the navy dolphins’ way of life, her voice sometimes falters from the emotional pain she feels for them—to her, their captivity is anathema to them, and keeping them alive when they’re so sick is an additional moral, and physical, insult. When Rothe describes the feats navy mammals have been trained to do, he speaks of them with almost fatherly pride. Bollo and Rector want the dolphins to be free from what they say is animal abuse. The navy insists its dolphins are happy and like what they do.

Can the two sides ever find common ground, or will the practice of using navy dolphins only change with a major societal shift? Or the end of wars?

For the balance of this rather lengthy article, please go here.

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