The dolphins are going to be leaving Baltimore. And the land mammals are pretty torn up about it.

"I think they should be free," 10-year-old Ella Ransome said as she watched a dolphin named Foster glide past in his National Aquarium tank in Baltimore, Maryland, flashing her his dolphin grin. "But I'm sad that they're leaving. I'll miss them."

We all will. But we are beginning to acknowledge that aquariums, zoos and circuses present some difficult questions about our relationship with our fellow beasts.

Is it moral to enslave animals for our entertainment - or even for our enlightenment?

Advertisement

Many people grieved for Harambe, the majestic, endangered lowland gorilla who was shot by his Cincinnati zookeepers last month after a 3-year-old fell into his enclosure.

Humans threaten animals far more often than animals threaten humans - although that is little comfort to the parents of 2-year-old Lane Graves, who was snatched and killed by an alligator at a Disney resort last week.

Harambe's death at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden sparked outrage. Photo / Supplied
Harambe's death at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden sparked outrage. Photo / Supplied

Research has long shown that animals suffer psychological damage in captivity, yet we've always found a way to justify confining them to tanks and cages.

"How else will we get to meet them and learn about them?" asked a mum playing hooky from her human cubicle cage as her kids waved to the dolphins. "And why would we treat dolphins differently than other animals? What about ants - do we change everything to make sure we don't hurt ants?"

Baltimore's beloved Dolphin Discovery stars are not going anywhere right away. It will take about four years for the aquarium to build an ocean sanctuary in Florida or the Caribbean and move the dolphins. There, at long last, they'll taste real seawater and swim in a huge but still safely enclosed seaside space.

All but one of the aquarium's eight dolphins, who range in age from 7 to 44, have lived their entire lives in tanks. And the more we learn about these amazing animals, the more the cruelty of forcing them to jump and toss balls for squealing crowds becomes clear. But it also exposes a generational, cultural and even political divide.

In a file photo from 2008, Chesapeake, a 16-year-old dolphin, left, swims with her recently born calf, right, at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Photo / AP
In a file photo from 2008, Chesapeake, a 16-year-old dolphin, left, swims with her recently born calf, right, at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Photo / AP

In an op-ed published in the Baltimore Sun, aquarium director John Racanelli wrote that although baby boomers grew up watching Flipper, millennials grew up watching Free Willy.

So this week, I took Flipper (grandpa) and Free Willy (my kids) to the aquarium.

Right away, as we asked about the times for the dolphin shows, we got a lecture.

That goofy show my kids adored when they were toddlers has been replaced with a series of dolphin-sensitive talks and exercises that show the animals' natural and adaptive behaviors, we were told.

Flipper rolled his eyes. "It's like propaganda written by PETA," he said, referring to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advocacy group.

At the talk, the dolphins still did their jumps and their spins. And they still soaked folks in the splash zone.

But instead of performing to music and colorful commentary, the trainers explained, the dolphins were demonstrating natural behaviors that helped them navigate, hunt, groom and communicate.

"That is so cool. They are such cool animals. I like this so much more than the other one," the Free Willy delegation, ages 9 and 11, said.

"I learned how they hunt, how they live. It was amazing how many tricks they know," my 9-year-old marveled. "And they learned them! I think they're smarter than our dog."

An artist's impression shows the proposed seaside dolphin sanctuary by the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Image / AP
An artist's impression shows the proposed seaside dolphin sanctuary by the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Image / AP

The kids at the show debated whether the dolphins should be free. "I'd hate to be locked in my room my whole life," an 8-year-old said.

Lucas Laserna, 10, had a good idea. "What if they switch them out? Let some of them do the show for a while so they can teach us stuff, then they get to go to the sanctuary," Lucas said.

Nice compromise. Lucas for Congress?

Each of the conservation-minded presentations was punctuated with lectures about pollution and switching to reusable water bottles and avoiding disposable plastic bags.

Flipper, again, rolled his eyes.

"I learned more about recycling than about these intelligent animals," he groused. "This is a complete political-agenda takeover. They sound like wimps."

Well, we did learn that they are animals who swim about 80km a day in the wild, who have complex social structures, who teach their young to use tools to forage for food and who have developed sophisticated food-gathering techniques unique to their own regions and conditions.

And. yes, they totally look as if they're smiling. Basically, they are so much like us. And we know how we would react to spending our entire lives locked in a sterile environment that has little resemblance to the rest of the world.

PETA Protesters make their feelings known in Florida. Photo / Getty
PETA Protesters make their feelings known in Florida. Photo / Getty

The terrible toll of captivity was best documented in Blackfish, the 2013 documentary on SeaWorld orcas. That film sparked protests and boycotts that crippled SeaWorld, which recently announced that it would phase out its orca shows within two years.

That same pressure pushed Ringling Bros. to retire their elephants, too. Their final performance was last month.

The worry in eliminating dolphins from aquariums, orcas from SeaWorld and elephants from the circus is that we weaken the bonds we have with these animals, making fewer people care about their survival.

Lisa Beauvois, who was at the aquarium with her three kids this week, agreed that moving the dolphins to a sanctuary is a wonderful idea. And her family even has the means to maybe visit them someday if the sanctuary is in Florida.

"But I'm sure for lots of kids in Baltimore, this is the only way they would get to experience them," Beauvois said.

What is the cost of making elephants visible only to folks who can afford a photo safari in Kenya? Or dolphins accessible only in a sanctuary in blue-water vacation getaways?

The most important question of all: Will we look back 50 years from now at the way we've treated animals and realise that we were the real monsters all along?