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National Aquarium Plans To Move Retired Dolphins To Seaside Sanctuary

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Baby boomers grew up watching the 1963 version of Flipper. For millennials, it was Free Willy.

Such was the contrast mentioned by John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium at Baltimore, Maryland, in his new op-ed article.

Writing in The Baltimore Sun, Racanelli announced that eight of the National Aquarium's dolphins will soon retire and be moved into their new home: a yet-to-be-build oceanside sanctuary in either Florida or The Caribbean.

The aquarium's move comes as public opinion about animals in captivity increasingly change. Indeed, Racanellli said Americans have become uneasy with the notion of keeping marine animals such as whales and dolphins in attractions or aquariums.

Furthermore, research over the last several years reveal that dolphins thrive in natural settings rather than at these artificial settings.

"These beliefs matter to us," said Racanelli.

Firm Decision

The eight dolphins will remain at the aquarium until a location for the sanctuary is found and it is finished by 2020, Racanelli said.

But the decision to close the dolphin exhibit has been five years in the making.

Racanelli, who has served as chief executive for National Aquarium since 2011, was there when aquarium leaders began searching for options for the marine animals.

Officials had considered renovating and rebuilding its aging pools to create a more "naturalistic" style for the aquarium or transferring the dolphins to other qualified facilities.

In the end, aquarium officials realized that the best decision is to build a dolphin sanctuary in a tropical or subtropical area.

This option was not part of the initial alternatives, but Racanelli said one of the main factors in the aquarium's decision-making was to consider what was best for the dolphins.

"This has not yet been done," says Racanelli. "And it is not the cheapest or easiest solution."

Although most dolphins are known to migrate to Chesapeake Bay, Racanelli said building the sanctuary in Maryland was not an option.

The National Aquarium also wanted to keep the eight dolphins — six females and two males — together because they have bonded with each other since they were all born. Their ages range from 7 years old to 44 years old.

Animal Rights

Racanelli's announcement is widely seen as a victory for animal rights activists, who have made efforts to raise awareness about animal captivity.

It also comes after other shows and venues have changed their treatment of animals. For instance, SeaWorld, which was involved in the tragic story behind the documentary Blackfish, has decided to stop breeding orcas in captivity.

In the meantime, the public will be able to view the transition process of dolphins at the National Aquarium. The marine animals will learn how to swim in and out of the transport unit and will adjust to a temporary outdoor tank that will help them acclimate to be being outside.

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