Ocean Park urged to end dolphin show 'circus'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am


Animal welfare groups are urging Ocean Park to phase out its trademark dolphin performance, which they say is outdated and 'circus-like' and gives a distorted impression of the animals' life in the wild.

The Asia for Animals coalition, an umbrella group including the Humane Society International, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Animals Asia, says the popular show could be replaced by exhibitions and virtual reality shows.

The group suggests multimedia exhibitions such as immersive theatre displays and simulation experiences, and a diver training academy where children and adults could have educational dives with scientists and marine biologists as an alternative.

But Ocean Park defended its daily Sea Dreams dolphin performance, which features a narrative of a man telling his granddaughter how humans and dolphins can live in harmony.

Ocean Park claims the show conveys a powerful conservation message to its five million annual visitors, and insists the behaviour displayed by the dolphins is natural and that animals are free to participate or not.

In a written submission to Ocean Park, Asia for Animals said: 'There are numerous activities and initiatives that Ocean Park could develop to further educate and entertain visitors without the need for live animal displays.'

The coalition, which has held talks with Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman, said Ocean Park should consider a 4-D immersion theatre in an aquarium setting similar to the one at the US National Aquarium in Baltimore, which combines 3-D visual effects with sensory effects built into theatre seats and surroundings.

Ocean Park's former chief veterinarian, Reimi Kinoshita, who worked there for 15 years until 2007, backs the proposals. 'I would like to see the dolphins displayed in a more naturalistic setting rather than this circus-type of presentation,' she said.

'They are put into captivity and they are made to work every day of their lives. Some of them I admit do enjoy the show - they find it is something to do. But some find it stressful.'

Kinoshita said dolphins did not behave in a natural way in the performances. 'When in the wild do dolphins push people around a pool?' she asked. 'Food is still used as the main positive reinforcement to encourage them to perform the way they do. If they choose not to perform, then they are not given fish at that time.'

But Ocean Park's executive director for zoological operations and education, Suzanne Gendron, said: 'We strongly believe animal presentations can influence visitors and strengthen connections to nature.

'Dolphins in the wild jump, leap, swim fast and play. This is natural behaviour that we have coupled with cues to allow us to demonstrate the behaviour for our visitors during the presentations at Ocean Theatre. If they decide not to participate, we ignore the behaviour and if they chose to participate, they are positively rewarded with affection, toys, snacks, and even ice.'

Gendron said she supported the proposals put forward by Asia for Animals in principle, but as complementary attractions rather than as replacements for live animal displays.

'Nothing replaces the impact of personal connections with live animals,' she said.

But 'dolphins will not wave their tail or jump that high in the natural world', said Samuel Hung, chairman of the Dolphin Conservation Society. 'Their behaviour is completely distorted and it sends a wrong image.'