It’s probably fair to say that India, with its 960,000,000 Hindus (that’s 80 percent of the population) is a nation of animal lovers. All sorts of creatures have long played a key role in the country’s religion, mythology and popular culture—and of course, most people in India don’t eat them.
That’s probably the main reason why, with one brief, disastrous exception, India has never allowed captive whales and dolphins to perform in shows. And now, thanks to a remarkable coalition of animal welfare activists on the sub-continent and a coalition of groups around the world, India’s ancient tradition of respect for all creatures will be preserved, at least as far as captive cetaceans are concerned.
On Monday, January 14, the Animal Welfare Board of India issued a directive to state governments and fish and game officials ordering them to refuse permission to any person or group, “that proposes to import or capture any cetacean [whale or dolphin] species for training, to use as a performing animal for commercial entertainment, private or public exhibition, private or human interaction, educational or research purposes.”
The board, part of the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, ruled that the capture, transport or display of cetaceans was a violation of the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
“Capture and transport is inarguably stressful and dangerous for cetaceans,” the official finding said. “Mortality rates of captured bottlenose dolphins shoot up six-fold immediately after capture and do not drop down to ‘normal’ levels for up to 35 to 40 days.”
According to the Indian government, shows where “animals are kept or used wholly or mainly for the purpose of performing tricks,” are no different from circuses, which are subject to national laws that regulate zoos. But zoos, the board noted, are required to breed and release wild species; inspire “empathy for wild animals” by displaying them in “naturalistic enclosures;” and provide for scientific studies and the creation of databases on endangered animals.
India has over 1 billion people—if captive dolphin display is prohibited there, then surely the rest of the world must soon follow.
Clearly, dolphin shows do not meet those criteria, the board determined. “To the best of our knowledge there are no studies documenting that exposure to, or interaction with, captive cetaceans increases the public’s knowledge or concern about dolphins and the environment. The most in-depth survey conducted by the public display industry and published as a white paper was critiqued unfavorably by a peer-reviewed evaluation of its methods and results.”
It is difficult to imagine any U.S. agency involved with captive cetaceans (namely the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture) issuing such a patently damning statement against, say, SeaWorld or the Miami Seaquarium. And it is absolutely impossible to conceive of federal officials accusing the captivity industry of mis-educating the public about marine mammals, but that is precisely what the Indian agency did.
“Not only does the public not learn much, if anything, about the real life of cetaceans,” it said, “but they are led to believe that the tricks they see are how cetaceans truly behave in the wild and that the cetaceans are pets and have value only in the context of their relationship to humans.”
There were other concerns as well, especially loud noises.
“The sensitive hearing of cetacean is well-established and numerous studies, many on-going, are documenting the harmful effects that anthropogenic noise can have on them,” the directive said. “When cetaceans cannot remove themselves from prolonged, loud sounds, physiological stress and damage can result.”
The ruling, which does not establish any new law, but does clarify and reinforce existing law, came just in time for animal welfare advocates.
A number of dolphin parks have been proposed by private and state groups in recent years, especially as per-capita income rises, lifting more Indians into the middle class, with its emphasis on more leisure time and family amusements. One park has been proposed for Kerala state and others are planned for Mumbai and outside Delhi.
India’s only experiment with captive dolphin display was a tragic disaster. In 1998, four dolphins were imported from a park in Bulgaria and brought to Dolphin City facility in Chennai. Within six months all four were dead, amid charges by activists that Dolphin City neglected to provide adequate veterinarian care.
This week’s ruling came as somewhat of a surprise by people in the international community who have been working to help the Indian government draft such a directive—including Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, and Humane Society International, along with the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations.
“This is a tremendous development,” Dr. Naomi A. Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International, told TakePart. “India has over 1 billion people—if captive dolphin display is prohibited there, then surely the rest of the world must soon follow.”
Rose, who played a role in drafting language for the advisory, thought the Indian action might carry weight in other countries. “The day when dolphins everywhere in the world are finally safe from the stress and trauma of capture and confinement may be in sight,” she said.
India now joins other influential nations such as the U.K., Switzerland, Brazil and Chile to end the practice of captive cetacean display. And it is fitting that such a significant move should come from a country that is predominantly Hindu,
Animals have always held a central role in Hinduism, where every god and goddess has their own species associated with them. There are also deities with animal attributes, including the very popular gods Ganesha and Hanuman. And of course, there is India’s most sacred animal of all, the cow.
In Hinduism, animals are not regarded as creatures for exploitation, but rather as our partners in life and spirituality. In many myths, the hunting of animals led to untold misery among humans. Anyone who contributes to the suffering of animals will deeply damage their own karma, the religion teaches.
But the laws of religion are sometimes ignored as often as the laws of humans, (indeed, some observers wonder how effectively India’s new dolphin decree will be enforced), and India is no exception.
Take the holy cows. Some 280 million of them are estimated to be roaming free amid the fields and byways of the massive country. But their highly sacred status does not always guarantee their welfare. Often seen scavenging by the roadside, cows in Dehli are routinely found with plastic bags and other indigestible refuse in their systems.
And in a land of professed animal lovers, there are an estimated 5,000 facilities using live animals in India’s booming medical and biological research industry. According to the Animal Welfare Board, only 1,700 of them are properly registered with the government, and a tiny fraction, about 200, have the facilities to adequately shelter and care for their animals.
“Unregulated experimentation is rampant,” board vice chairman S. Chinny Krishna said. “Animals are misused in India, even though many are revered as Gods.”
Let’s hope the Animal Welfare Board will always endeavor to maintain a god-like reverence for whales and dolphins in the world’s largest democracy.
Make the arguement that, like India, Japan should ban dolphinariums and dolphins in captivity programs.
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David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press.