By Kim Rahn
The movement to free dolphins illegally captured and used in dolphin shows is gaining momentum, with a court decision to confiscate such mammals from a show operator.
But how to take care of the seized animals and how to release them back into the wild remains an issue. On Wednesday, the Jeju District Court ruled five dolphins at a local marine leisure park, Pacificland, should be confiscated by the state.
The operator of Pacificland illegally bought the five tursiops aduncus, an endangered species often called Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, from fishermen between 2009 and 2010. The mammals were trained to perform in the show.
The court also sentenced the head of Pacificland, surnamed Heo, to an eight-month prison term suspended for two years.
“After illegally possessing the five dolphins, Heo trained and used them for a show, obtaining considerable gains. If the state doesn’t confiscate them, Heo is likely to continue to use them for the show and earn more profit,” it said in the ruling.
“The operator said the trained animals may not be able to survive in the wild. But their adaptation to the ocean doesn’t affect the need for confiscation,” the court said.
The ruling on the release of captured dolphins was the first of its kind here. It came about three weeks after Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced the city would free one of the dolphins at Seoul Zoo. The male dolphin, named Jedol, was brought from Pacificland and it was found the animal had also been illegally captured.
Seoul City also suspended the dolphin show there following criticism on animal abuse. It is collecting public opinion on whether to resume the show.
Despite the ruling, the Pacificland dolphins still offer shows because Heo said he would appeal. It will take at least one more year for a Supreme Court ruling to be made.
Until the final ruling, it is also possible the dolphins may die. The marine leisure park originally had 11 dolphins but five of them have died in the last two years.
How to train the dolphins to adapt to the wild is another problem. Park said the city will build a facility in Jeju for Jedol’s training with a budget of 870 million won. The city predicts the training will take more than a year.
If the government is to train the five dolphins from Pacificland, it will require much more money. Hot Pink Dolphins, an animal rights’ group, claimed Pacificland operators should pay the expenses.
It is also to be seen whether the dolphins will be able to successfully adapt to the wild again.
One of the five dolphins was caught about two years ago and the other four, about three years ago. Experts say the shorter a dolphin has stayed in an artificial environment with humans, the more likely it will readapt to the wild.
“They were trained to bury their survival instincts in the wild. But as they have been with humans for only a couple of years, if they are trained to regain them, we think they have high chances for adaptation,” said Lee Hyung-ju, a member of Korean Animal Welfare Association.
She said it will be the best option if the Pacificland dolphins can be trained together with Jedol, adding her group plans to raise funds from citizens for the training if necessary.