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Captive Dolphins - death by stress, suicide and sacrifice - potent appeals for freedom.

The Lion Park Dolphin has something to say about being a commercial pet.

A blood-chilling scream erupts from the forest as Freddy and I walk past the buildings of the children's zoo towards the back of the property. Amid the trees, a wide variety of birds and animals crowd filthy cages.

This is the menagerie where the Circus keeps its animals when it is not on the road. When I spoke to the owner of the Lion Park Safari, whom I will call Mr. Bulley, this morning he said he would be busy getting animals ready for a tour but could see me for a few minutes.

The scream tears at us again, ending with the unmistakable growling hiss of a big cat. We head for the sound, rounding a big cage filled with monkeys. Bulley crouches outside the steel bars of a small cage, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his face red and angry.

A black panther, so skinny its ribs show, darts back and forth in the cage, placing one paw high on the bars and flipping himself round the other way at each end of his confined flight.

Bully and his men have backed a small traveling crate against the panther's cage and a door is open between them. He is trying to get the panther into the crate but the panther has other ideas. Bulley has a six foot length of steel pipe in his hand. He maneuvers to the end of the cage away from the crate and as the panther turns away, he reaches through the bars and whacks the big cat with the pipe. The cat screams and Freddy grabs my hand hard, "That creep!" she hisses, echoing my own thoughts. She gives him a glare of revulsion that could destroy minor life forms. It's a shame the minor life form was too busy to notice.

I watch helplessly as he beats the panther again and again, yelling in rage at the terrified and bewildered cat. I want to grab the pipe and lay it up alongside the asshole's head but keep reminding myself I am here to try and negotiate with him. Whacking him with the pipe might not be the best opening move.

Squeek, the youngest dolphin, died last month. When I heard about it, I decided to hell with the I Ching, to hell with the idea of being a foreigner here, I must react. It was a physical statement from the dolphins to amplify the mental one. I guess the dolphins thought I didn't hear them the first time. I am ashamed I did not react at once. And strongly.

An autopsy showed Squeek had a nasty bite on the tail, but gives a perforated ulcer as cause of death. Stress from being in the swimming pool. Freddy and I borrowed a car and drove out to the Lion Park Safari. Genene said, "We knew Squeek was not feeling well. He had a bite on his tail and it got infected. We had him in the holding area there. He kept getting in fights so we had to isolate him."

"How long was he isolated?" I asked.

"Not long. Perhaps a couple of weeks before he died. He died from the infection even though we were giving him antibiotics." She looked very unhappy. I remember her saying they kept dolphins out of the show as a form of punishment. Two weeks in solitary confinement in a pool where Squeek could hardly turn around. No wonder he got an ulcer. Genene did not know about the ulcer diagnosis. Interesting.

As Freddy and I left the dolphinarium, a 15 or 16 year old kid, stopped us. I'd seen him sweeping the area around the dolphin pool as I talked with Genene. "I have a little Lion cub at my house, would you like to see it?"

I looked at Freddy, she nodded, "Sure."

He glanced back at the plywood barrier and over at the office building and darted into the back seat of our car.

On the way to his house he said, "I heard you asking about Squeek. Genene was lying. Squeek didn't die from the bite. It was almost healed. He died because he wanted to. He just stopped eating and one morning I walked in and found him on the bottom. Dead. There was nothing wrong with him. He just drowned himself to get out of there. They had him in the little holding area for weeks and he hated it. All the dolphins hate it in there. It's terrible. They don't want anybody to know, but lots and lots of dolphins have died in there. They just truck out the dead ones, bring in new ones and pretend like they are the same dolphins."

This supported what we learned from the secretary of Dr. Hide, the Veterinarian who is supposed to be overseeing the animals here. More than a dozen dolphins have died in the little blue swimming pool. Nobody is sure if there have been unrecorded deaths.

Dr. Hide, who conducted the autopsies, is a sheep doctor. He didn't have a clue as to what the first six dolphins died from. He just listed the cause of death as "Unknown." Very scientific. Later he started listing the cause of death as perforated ulcers - a common problem with captive dolphins. Maybe he read a book on captive dolphins in the library. Who knows if his autopsies are any good? Maybe the kid was right. Maybe Squeek just went to the bottom of the tank and breathed water just to get out.

"Did you hear about Sally? Her drowning her baby?" the boy looked at me in the rear-view mirror.

"No, we haven't" I answered. This was partly true. We knew part of the story.

"Here's my house, that one there." He pointed and I pulled over and stopped. We got out and he went into his home. His parents were at work. Freddy and I sat on the steps. Our young friend emerged with a little tiny baby lion held lovingly in his arms.

"Ohhh, he's so cute!" Freddy cuddled it in her hands.

"Bulley wants to kill it ‘cause it's blind. They have an inbreeding problem at the park. I couldn't let them kill it. They do some pretty bad things over there. I don't think I want to work there much longer. But I try to help the lions and the other animals when I can. Maybe I should let them kill the cub. I don't know what I'll do with a blind lion when it gets big. But....."

Shake hands with Sally.

"Tell me about Sally and her baby," I changed the subject while Freddy chuffled the darling little blind lion.

Slowly, in stages, the story of the female dolphin emerged. "It was a very hot day," the boy said, "We knew she was going to have a baby. Everyone was real excited about it. Genene said dolphins only have babies when they want to, so this was a big deal for public relations. It would be proof the dolphinarium was a good place for them to live."

"Sally swam round and round and round the tank. Her belly was swollen with the baby. I could see she was hurting the way she swam.

"The other three dolphins watched. Once and awhile one of them would come over and nuzzle her, touching her underneath.

"Genene was there. And Dr. Hide and some other people."

As the boy talked, I imagined how the dolphin must have felt. Her mind a mirrored image where ultimate joy reversed into ultimate pain. There was the joy of birth and a terrifying fear of birthing new life into the fetid, blank horrid trap. Astoundingly, I had already written about this in my book. Wrote about it before I even arrived in Sydney. I could see it clearly.

Sally swam around and around in endless circles of bewilderment.

Her friends were clicking her and, in their echoes, she shared with them the delightful view of her baby within her. Their voices illuminated her and through her into the secret recess of birth. In their echoes, they all saw the tiny caudal fin kick. As pain squeezed her muscles, the small tail emerged from within her. Her baby began to buck in earnest and she squeezed with all her might and felt the baby slipping out.

The others came and called soothing music as they swam round and around with her.

Genene let out a shout and the male humans came forward, looking into the pool at the new life emerging.

"NOW! NOW!" the voices thundered through her. She squeezed one last time and her baby came free.

She looked around and saw her baby swimming so weak and tiny, canted to one side, unable to find its balance. She circled round and took the baby by its small fin, holding it ever so tenderly in her jaws. She guided it to the surface and swam around the pool, feeling it begin to breathe....."New Life" called the other dolphins as they saw its lungs fill for the first time. She felt the baby begin to gain balance and firmness of its strokes....."New Life" called the other dolphins and came closer to see....

But in their calls was tension and fear. And in her heart their voices chanted again and again, "NOW! NOW! NOW!" until she thought her heart would break.

She fought the command but it was the voice of all of them together in the pool - the communal voice of their united self. And they had decided, last night, when the stars glittered in the sky and the pool chilled quickly so far from Sea. They had decided it was wrong to give new life such a desolate home, so cut off from Sea. It was wrong for them and for the young. They had decided to attempt to reach the human spirit with the ultimate sacrifice.

"MY Baby!" Heart cried out. But the inner voice was joined by the harmonic pulse of the others in the pool "NOW! NOW!" Their mind took her body with the same, powerful, yet gentle grip she had on her baby's fin and together they dove to the bottom of the pool.

There she stopped.

"The baby squirmed in her jaws and she held still. And the baby kicked its tiny tail and bubbles streamed from its blow-hole." Our young friend looked miserable. "She just stayed down there. One of the guys jumped in and tried to get the baby, but she just turned and moved away, so he couldn't get it." He had tears in his eyes and his voice faltered..."Until it was dead."

"She surfaced, and let it go. Genene cried. They took the dead baby and gave it to Dr. Hide. I thought maybe they would understand why she did it but they didn't. They were just mad because she drowned the baby and ruined the publicity. I knew why she did it. Yeah, too right, I knew why." The boy was trying manfully to hold back the tears in his eyes.

Sally made the ultimate sacrifice and still the hominids would not recognize the dolphin's horror. The hominids did not return them to Sea. Sally joined the other dolphins in their continued chant for freedom.

"Humans, Hear Us....."

Bulley finally beats the Panther into the crate and two helpers slam the door shut. The team moves on to the baboon cage. The baboons are equally determined to stay out of their travelling crates and leap crazily around the dead branches of the tree in their habitat cage.

Bulley orders the men to bring a fire hose. While we watch in apathetic shock, he and his men blast a family down from its perch with the powerful stream from the hose and wash them into a corner where the men shout and threaten the baboons and grab them, shoving them into their crates. A female clutches her tiny frightened baby, shrieks and runs, trying to shield her face and her baby from the blast of water.

Freddy emits a cross between a growl and a moan.

All in all it is the most unprofessional, brutal and stupid exhibition of mistreatment of animals I've ever seen.

Bulley ignores us as he shuffles trucks and crates here and there and finally puts on a "show" with a few horses and his elephant. Then the old showman, a heavyset man with a pleasant face and charming smile, gladhands us and invites us into his office to talk.

"So, what can I do for you?" he smirks.

"Well, Sir, I'm really quite impressed with what you've accomplished with your Lion Park Safari concept. As I understand the story, you grew up in your family circus and saw how the Lions were in poor health and often needed to be replaced: an expensive proposition. You realized they would do better if they were allowed to roam around in fields - as in their native Africa - when they were not being used as circus animals."

"That's right, and it's worked well. In fact, we export lions to Africa. How about that!" He puffs up.

"Terrific. But you know, the same principle applies to dolphins." his face falls, but I barge ahead. "They, even more than lions, are adapted to move around - to swim long distances in the open sea. When they are kept in confined quarters all the time they begin to develop various kinds of physiological disorders."

He starts looking for something on his desk, but I keep on, "For one thing, dolphins literally swim out of their skins: a layer of cells being worn away all the time by the abrasive plankton. When they can't move enough, the loose skin builds up, especially over the eyes, and creates eye infection. Surely you've noticed the red eyes and mottled skin of your dolphins?"

He absorbs this with a narrow, hostile look and says, "So?"

"Well, just as lions are difficult and expensive to replace, dolphins are, too. I understand you've had to replace quite a few." I pause.

"We had a bit of trouble at first but now we've got the diet worked out and.....what's this about anyway?" He is definitely angry now.

"I have been asked by a group of concerned citizens to ask if you would consider doing for dolphins what you've already done so successfully for lions. Establish a sea-side dolphin park where the dolphins are able to move around in greater freedom: perhaps even be trained to come and go from the open sea for their performances. I'm sure it will interest you to know the U.S. Navy has had many programs where it allowed the dolphins free access to the open sea and yet they returned each night to their holding areas. And in the Florida Keys there is a dolphin park where the dolphins perform but have access to the sea."

"Wait a minute," he holds up his hand. "Just a minute. Look, you're wasting your time. I don't control the dolphinarium by myself. It's owned by an English partnership and they put a lot of money into its construction and into the whole program. It's the finest dolphinarium in the world. We make our own sea water and keep the salts in perfect balance. We even keep a vet engaged full time to make sure the dolphins get the best treatment possible."

"The condition of the water is not the point. The size of the water mass is incorrect for holding dolphins. Just as you could keep a man in a perfectly clean cage but the confinement would cause him to suffer."

"Well," he chuckled, "A hundred years ago we could have kept an aborigine in a cement pit and nobody would have cared. But now your animal groups are onto anything to make them some money, right? First the dolphins, then the sea lions, then the penguins."

"I realize an aborigine was kept in a zoo in Tasmania last century. The last one left alive after the rest were shot for sport. She died there. But the issue is not what people thought was right last century but what makes good economic sense today. It's biologically a poor idea to keep dolphins in such confined quarters. They get sick and die. If you, because of your background as the man who freed the lions, were to understand dolphins are also better off in more suitable environments, it would make you a hero. I'm sure the animal rights groups would be 100% behind you. It would make lots of the right kind of publicity for you. Publicity would increase your gate here and later help set you up as a major player in the sea-side park world."

"OK, I'll discuss it with my English partners. But I should warn you it might take some time. They have a lot of money tied up in their dolphinarium." He stands up and offers his hand.

"I'd like to use that pipe on him and jam that fire hose up his ass," Freddy snarls as we walk back to the car. If she had a long cat's tail it would be thrashing back and forth.

"Well, we have to try to get him to volunteer to let the dolphins go. It's the best way. If it's possible."

"It's not possible!" Freddy stops and wheels on me. "Didn't you hear him? About the English partners and all?"

"Sure, I heard him. He said he'd talk to them....."

"No....Look at this place. Look at him. He's not doing well financially," Freddy spells it out for me.

"All the more reason for him to want good publicity," I argue.

"Listen, sweetheart, Bullet-brain was probably going broke and he talked some dumb but rich English firm into investing in his Lion Park. What could he do to get someone to put in a bunch of capital? Buy more Lions? He's already up to his armpits in lions. He talked them into investing a lot of money in a big, expensive dolphinarium, probably raking off a bundle from them in the construction and maintenance of the thing. The facility increases his ability to borrow more money to keep this stupid show going. He can't afford to let the dolphins out." She turns and heads for the car. Maybe she's right. Probably is. Damn.

I get in the car and start it up. We drive out the gate and turn back towards Sea. I keep remembering the look in the eye of the dolphin today. All the way back on the long drive to Sea I see a dolphin eye, red, fatigued, coated with slime, and hear a dolphin chant over and over again.

Humans, Hear us.

We live in a web of sound.
A deep lush vivid fine world where song-colors sparkle mind.

For you, life is a vision of Earth and Sun.
For us, life is a deep inner harmony of sound.

Yours a vision, an image of life.
Ours a harmony, a song of life.

Humans, Hear us.

You are Masters, free in your image and your vision.
We are trapped, cut off, sheared from our song of life.

Oh how we ache for Sea.
Do you hear us Man?
Can you understand?

We dance for you and pray for your enjoyment.
We offer you our souls and our friendship.
We sacrifice our child.
So you might hear us, Man, in this small, silent terror where we are dying.

Let our larger self, the Sea, enfold us once more before death comes
and the multicolored rainbows of sunlight and sea end.

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