How do you train captive dolphins to be wild again?
How do you train captive dolphins to be wild again? Dolphins/Shutterstock

There are a few people on The Stranger's Facebook page commenting on my article published yesterday saying that once a dolphin or an orca has been captive (orcas are the largest of the dolphin family), you cannot release them back into the wild. They won't be able to hunt. They won't be able to swim great distances. They'll be so used to human company they won't know what to do with themselves. This is an opinion held by many people in the scientific community, too, including people whose work is related to the captivity industry, which is regulated by the federal government.

But three months ago, National Geographic described in detail how it is possible to rehabilitate captive dolphins for the wild. The magazine's source? Jeff Foster, "the son of a Seattle veterinarian" and a former employee of the Seattle Marine Aquarium. The Seattle Marine Aquarium opened for the World's Fair in 1962, acquired its first orca in 1965, and was the first place on the planet a killer whale ever performed tricks with a human being in front of an audience. The Seattle Marine Aquarium and its orca-capturing side business (called Namu Inc.) were acquired by SeaWorld in 1973, and the aquarium closed in 1977, shortly after a court settlement that prevented any more orca captures by SeaWorld in this state. After that point, Foster and the rest of the orca-capturing crew (including Don Goldsberry, one of the principals in the company) went to Iceland to continue to pursue captures for the captivity industry.

As National Geographic puts it: "Ironically Foster’s extensive experience bringing dolphins into captivity meant he was uniquely qualified to reverse the process."

So how exactly did he do it? How do you teach captive dolphins, used to eating frozen fish, to eat live fish again? Gradually. The two dolphins Foster "rewilded" were named Tom and Misha.

The first job was to overcome Tom’s and Misha’s picky eating habits and reacquaint them with the fish they would likely encounter in the Aegean, such as mullet, anchovies, and sardines. The strategy was to offer them a local fish species. If they ate it, they were rewarded with mackerel, a fish they’d developed a taste for in captivity. To mimic the unpredictability of food in the wild, Foster varied the amount and frequency of their meals.

After that, Foster wanted to "to wake up their highly capable dolphin brains."

He dropped into the pen things they might not have seen for years, like an octopus or a jellyfish or a crab. He cut holes along the length of a PVC tube, stuffed it full of dead fish, and then plunked it into the water. Tom and Misha had to figure out how to manipulate the tube so that the fish would pop out of the holes. “In captivity we train the animals not to think on their own, to shut down their brains and do what we ask them to do,” Foster explains. “What we are trying to do when we release them into the wild is get them off autopilot and thinking again.”

The feeder tube had two other benefits. It floated about five feet below the surface, so Tom and Misha were reminded that food is found underwater. It also helped disassociate humans from the provision of food.

And then what about hunting live fish?

It’s one of the oddities of captivity that wild-caught dolphins no longer seem to understand that live fish are to be hunted and eaten. Tom and Misha would watch schools of fish swimming through their pen as if they were watching television. Foster had to train them to hunt and eat live fish again. He started by mixing live fish—initially slowed down by a bang on the head or a cut tail—into handfuls of dead fish that would be thrown into the pool. Tom and Misha had become so used to racing each other to gobble up anything that dropped into the water that without thinking they would eat the live fish along with the dead ones. Over time live fish—slowed less and less—made up an increasing portion of their feedings, until the dolphins were once again accustomed to the taste and to the idea that they had to catch their meals.

As for what happened to Tim and Misha in the end, go read the piece.

As for Lolita, the 50-year-old orca I wrote about this week, Miami Seaquarium says they are her home and she is not going anywhere. As of a few months ago, Lolita is officially protected by the Endangered Species Act, and a new lawsuit saying Miami Seaquarium is violating the Endangered Species Act was filed two months ago. Miami Seaquarium disputes the claims of the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs' goal is to return Lolita to local waters—specifically, a sea pen in a protected cove of Orcas Island.