National Geographic : 2015 Jun
64 national geographic • june 2015 with brains that are notably large and complex for their body size. They’re capable of extensive communications and use signature whistles that are analogous to individual names. They can rec- ognize themselves in a mirror and understand abstract concepts, and they’ve demonstrated a grasp of grammar and syntax. Fewer than three dozen long-term captive dolphins had been released over the previous the United States as well as Iceland. In addition to killer whales, he took smaller dolphins, sea lions, seals, and other animals from the wild for captive display. Though Foster tried not to wrestle too much with the question of whether Tom and Misha were helping him pay a karmic debt, the work felt right. He had caught his first killer whale because it was a far more interesting way to earn 50 years, with mixed and often inconclusive results. Tom and Misha offered an opportunity to elevate the art and science of teaching a dol- phin to be wild again and better define at least one alternative to continued captivity. “This is the sort of thing that touches people to the core,” says Travers. “If we could get it right for Tom and Misha, it could inspire people and help people move along to question [captive dolphin] display.” If Tom and Misha offered Born Free a chance to define the future, they offered Jeff Foster a chance at partial redemption. Foster has long blond hair, an easygoing manner, and the ruddy complexion of a man who’s severely allergic to office cubicles. The son of a Seattle veterinarian, he has always loved learning about animals and went to work for the Seattle Marine Aquarium at the age of 15. Starting in 1976, when he was 20, he helped Don Goldsberry, who became SeaWorld’s most prolific collector of marine mammals, set up an operation to catch orcas, or killer whales—the largest species of dolphin— in Iceland. Over the next 14 years Foster helped capture some two dozen killer whales for Sea- World and other marine parks from waters off a living than flipping burgers, and he sincere- ly thought it was the best way to learn about a little-understood animal. But listening to the plaintive cries of young animals alone and con- fined on the deck of a capture boat taught him that the moral calculation was complex. He did his best to use his hands and voice to calm fear- ful and distressed young killer whales, and he refused to follow the practices of those who be- lieved that withholding food would help break a killer whale and make it more submissive. Still, he says, “the more you do it, the more you realize you are separating families. You can’t feel good about taking something from the wild.” I ronically Foster’s extensive experience bringing dolphins into captivity meant he was uniquely qualified to reverse the process. It also made him an awkward partner for Born Free. “Jeff was very much from the capture industry, and we were very nervous,” says Alison Hood, who supervised the project for Born Free. “But he is an absolute wealth of knowledge, and we had taken responsibility for Tom and Misha and had a responsibility to give them the best chance, no matter what.” Foster thought the process of re- habilitating Tom and Misha and preparing them for release might take six to eight months and cost $500,000—for the pen, the staff, the equip- ment, the live fish. Born Free hoped it would Tom and Misha, in captivity since 2006, offered an opportunity to elevate the art and science of teaching a dolphin to be wild again. Tim Zimmermann has written extensively about the captive dolphin and killer whale industry. He was associate producer of the documentary film Blackfish.