I’m in Costa Rica all week so why not talk about dolphins? The captured kind.

Last year I penned a post on this topic while weekending at a fancy Florida Keys resort that offered a swim-with-the-dolphins experience (one I eschewed, I'll assure you). This year it’s more to do with all those unhappy memories I have after watching The Cove.

You’ve heard of The Cove. It’s the dolphin documentary that was filmed in Taiji, Wakayama, Japan during the annual killing of the dolphins. The one where way-too-earnest, free-the-dolphins activists actually get something accomplished by spending more time filming the actual problem than by filming themselves getting arrested for protesting it. (Though they managed a little of that too, for good measure, as if to prove their PETA-playbook mettle.)

Despite my initial misgivings I was well-pleased with the documentary. Especially so because it went beyond the realm of the standard animal rights polemic into the various underpinnings of the dolphin problem around the world (including a very thoughtful treatment of the food angle, with all the mercury toxicity and population biology issues more than passingly addressed).

Despite the global impact the film has had, I should be very specific: This film is about one season of slaughter that occurs at one time of the year (now, in September), in one town, in one country. This is a film that is very much about Japan and its fishery practices.

Seeing how some Japanese are so rabid about their marine mammal rights and how they’re able to impact the global trade in seafood so effectively, it’s none too narrow a lens for my taste. Indeed, the topic of slaughtering thousands of bottle-nosed dolphins in one cove in one town in one country would not have been as interesting had the documentary been filmed in a variety of geographic locales. The geographical setting of the kill was part of what made this movie profoundly unsettling.

You should see it. But then again … not if you have a thing about watching animals drown.

Which brings me back to the movie I’d like to see get made. It’s the one about the thriving trade in captive dolphins, so that you and your children (and other well-to-do folks around the world) can spend fifteen minutes, in a group, in the water with one dolphin, for $100 per participant.

It’s all the rage. My son’s grandparents took him on a cruise to Honduras and Mexico and  — guess what? — one of the off-the-ship options he was much taken with included a "swim with the dolphins" experience in Honduras. Had I seen The Cove by that time, I would have responded to his "Why can't I?" protests by sitting him down to watch the bloodbath scenes. Luckily, I’d had plenty of recent resort experience to handle a riposte without having to resort to this type of violence.

I recalled a past post and offered him this by way of explanation:

In an increasing number of swanky locations worldwide, you can swim with the dolphins while awaiting your massage, pilates class, or parasailing adventure. As advertised, you too can arrive with no training in marine mammals, slip into the water alongside them, give signals for tricks and offer fish at the end. A lucky child might get gently splashed, ride a small circle while attached to a dorsal fin, and receive a dolphin-style "kiss" on the mouth.

It’s undoubtedly "sweet." Onlookers coo and clap, every bit as delighted as the well-heeled little children or the kissy-kissy newlyweds awaiting their dolphin-buddy photo op. And why not? A dolphin is a rare sight in Minnesota and Montana, right?

These dolphins are always absolutely beautiful, delightfully well-trained, and happy-go-lucky in every perceptible way. They’re perfectly maintained. Well loved, even.

Why not take a swim? For around $100 (on average) you too can contribute to the maintenance of dolphins that might otherwise have no place to go. After all, we all know that municipal aquariums are underfunded, many dolphin programs (public and private) are no longer packing in the crowds, and the welfare issues related to keeping marine mammals are significant.

Indeed, that’s the sales pitch. Not only are these "animal ambassadors" teaching children to respect all of nature, they were once "unwanted."

What to do with an elephant after the circus shuts down? With a Silverback gorilla no zoo needs? With a dolphin, now that the Navy can no longer justify them, now that Seaquariums and small water parks everywhere can no longer turn a dime on their expensive, in-house presence? Send them to a "swim-with" facility!

These places know a thing or two about profitability. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend $100 to hang out with Flipper for five minutes? In fact, this resort feature has gotten so popular that the active trade in live bottle-nose dolphins is again on the rise.

All of which invariably raises a wide variety of ethical issues:

While I understand why any parent might want to inspire adoration and respect for wildlife by granting their children this opportunity, I see absolutely no reason to contribute to this farce by allowing my son to have the same experience. It’s just not worth it given the fact of the dolphins’ blatant exploitation.

I don't deny that it's fun — even potentially life-changing — to swim with dolphins. I’ve had the opportunity in a veterinary capacity and will forever cherish the memory of my experience. Still, it’s not something I would elect to repeat in a commercial setting.

In practice, dolphins should have next to nothing to do with humans. Spied from ashore, frolicking from afar … that’s about it. I can’t think of any other reasonable excuse to interact with them up close and personal beyond veterinary attempts on their behalf.

Now that’s we’ve abused and enslaved them into our company, we have to live with the ones we have left, even if we can barely afford them. As long as releasing them into the wild is not considered a reasonable option (as is the case for most animals that have been raised in captivity or kept out of their kind’s company for wide swaths of time), they’ll have to make do by earning their keep. Or so the party line goes.

But that doesn’t mean I can justify a pricey "swim-with." Not if it means someone’s still turning a profit off their backs. Not if it means my dollars will in any way be construed as a tacit endorsement of their captivity in a small, petroleum-laced lagoon with small children for company instead of their own kind. I might as well go to the circus. Or not.

Truly, the sight of Flipper in all his captive, Florida Keys glory did nothing to make me want to jump in the water and kiss him. If you want to know the truth, it rather made me want to slather myself in body paint and make a naked PETA-esque statement before all the fat-and-happy masses.

It’s a good thing I didn’t. My boyfriend has a thing about my public displays of emotion. And I’ve since pledged to keep a lid on it. Thank God our vacation in Costa Rica will at least go unmarred by any dolphin-defensive outbursts. It’s the only country I know of in the world that has outlawed "swim-with" dolphin facilities. Now if only ours would see the light and go the same way.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "Tickle the dolphin" by surfzone