A few months ago, I was at a physical therapy appointment when the therapist mentioned she would be out the next week for a long-awaited trip to Florida.
“How fun!” I said. “What are you going to be doing there?”
“Swimming with dolphins,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life and I just can’t wait.”
I held my tongue; it wouldn’t have changed anything at that point to tell her my opinion on the topic—plus she was bending my spine at the time—but it bothered me. Clearly, it still does.
Whether the dolphins were caught in the wild or born in captivity, I don’t feel a person’s desire to touch one supersedes our responsibility to protect their ability to live out their natural lives in a normal environment. The stress of daily contact and small quarters on the physical and mental well-being of these intelligent creatures is well documented, and suffice it to say, the encounter experience is one I’ll never be doing.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s any hope for humanity, if we are ever going to decide as a species that we can do better than we’re doing. It was with this in mind that I went out on my recent vacation to Costa Rica, and I’m so glad I did.
I learned that is possible for an entire country to decide, as a matter of national pride and normalcy, that wildlife is valuable just as it is. We were told no less than ten times, from everyone from the taxi driver to the tour guides, that we must never feed the monkeys (we didn’t, though I can’t say the same for the people up the road from us). When we were driving down the road, we saw a sloth about to cross into traffic, and our driver pulled over to gently carry him safely across the street. The road was crisscrossed with wide green ropes, safe conduits for both monkey and sloth, to prevent both car incidents and shocks from power lines.
Because I always am on the lookout for rescues to visit, we found ourselves at a sanctuary called Kids Saving the Rainforest. Unlike some places that function as moneymakers masquerading as “rescues,” this place was the real deal. We toured, but did not touch. Many of the animals were confiscated by the government from private citizens, as any animals other than dogs and cats are illegal to own as pets. Yes, even animals we think of as common pets here, such as parakeets. These habituated birds, monkeys, and reptiles would never survive on their own, so they live out their lives at the sanctuary.
Injured wild animals are also brought in for treatment. We saw a sloth with a broken arm, a hawk with one eye, and various injured primates. The animals who were too injured to be returned to the wild are maintained in as normal an environment as the sanctuary could provide, and those who were in the process of being rehabilitated were kept away from human interaction as much as possible in order to encourage self reliance.
This is a small group started by two little kids and funded on donations and from the occasional tour. They are staffed by a skeleton crew and volunteers. Despite this, they are doing better work than many larger, better funded facilities, because they are doing it for the right reasons.
I was a little nervous about taking my friends to the place—after all, they were on vacation too and I didn’t know if they would be bored by a place where they weren’t allowed to touch or interact. I needn’t have worried.
That afternoon, as we sat in our living room and listened to the people up the road squeal over the monkeys they were again feeding, one of my friends marched up and gave them a handout from the reserve about all the reasons they needed to knock off what they were doing, ending with the huge fines. I had to wipe away a proud tear.
In retrospect, I wish I had said something to my PT that day months ago. Education can be done in a kind manner. Obviously she loved dolphins or else she wouldn’t have wanted to meet them, and maybe I could have convinced her to see things in a different light. Not all changes have to be big. Sometimes, it takes one person at a time.
The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.