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Day of the Dolphin: How Vintage Florida Kitsch Masked a Grim Reality

Vacation souvenirs are the ultimate in kitsch, and nothing says "Florida vacation" more than knick-knacks featuring dolphins. Collectors who amass vintage Florida dolphin souvenirs know they can evoke fond memories of good times long ago, but they also capture a time that wasn't so great for the dolphins involved. The first Florida aquarium featuring dolphins opened in 1938 to enthusiastic crowds. A decade later, such attractions began training dolphins to perform tricks for paying audiences. The craze for dolphins peaked in the 1960s when the TV show Flipper became a hit. While the tourists kept coming to watch the intelligent marine mammals perform impressive stunts, research on dolphin intelligence plus the proliferation of smaller, cheaper attractions caused a shift in public consciousness about the ethics of keeping captive dolphins.   

In fact, evidence was piling up that the experiences of captive marine mammals were pretty grim. Even though marine biologists continued to refine their abilities to keep dolphins alive, animal activists argued it was cruel to keep intelligent mammals in a tank, no matter what the size. Dolphins in the wild swim hundreds of miles a day and interact with an underwater world of other creatures. Dolphins in captivity often engage in repetitive behaviors, self-injure, and become aggressive to trainers or other animals.

Above all, it was clear that captivity shortened dolphins’ life span: Bottlenose dolphins can live for an average of 40 years in the wild. But captive dolphins only make it an average of 5.

Just capturing the dolphins was extraordinarily stressful and terrifying for the animals, to say nothing of imprisoning them, sometimes in solitary confinement, in bare tanks only large enough to swim circles in. Training them and displaying them posed additional dangers.

Still, it took decades for the marine mammal shows to die out. Read about the rise and fall of dolphin parks at Collectors Weekly.


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