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David Capello and Duchess. Image: The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy
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A former UK dolphin trainer reflects

It’s been 30 years since the last dolphin show closed its doors in the UK. But shockingly, it’s still not illegal to keep a whale, dolphin, or porpoise captive. We talked to David C Holroyd (stage name David Capello), a top dolphin trainer during the early 1970s boom in whale and dolphin ‘attractions’.

Despite being at the pinnacle of the dolphin training world, David’s conscience couldn’t bear the mistreatment he witnessed, prompting him to walk away after only three and a half years.

David is here to share his unique insight on the cruel captivity industry’s past and the potential consequences were it to make a comeback in the UK.

Picture this - a  newspaper ad proclaiming: ‘Leading leisure company requires young person to present dolphins. Interviews at Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester.’ Being a strong schoolboy swimmer and the proud owner of a magnificent tropical fish tank, Mum thought I’d be a perfect fit. She signed me up, and out of the 350 hopeful applicants, I was one of two boys chosen to train as dolphin show presenters. Thrust into the spotlight at 17, little did I know that this dazzling opportunity would lead me to a world of cruelty.

The original job offer I received back in 1974.

Traumatic beginnings

My journey quickly took an unexpected turn, I was whisked away to the harsh confines of the South Elmsall dolphin training pens, hidden in a small Yorkshire mining village. These pens were once a swimming pool, repurposed to transform wild dolphins into performers. Those humans who graduated as trainers and presenters from this establishment were known for being ‘hard-nosed’. Not surprising, considering the daily horrors we witnessed.

Fraser's dolphin (lagenorynchus hosei) A group of Fraser's dolphins at sunset in the Eastern Caribbean.

Help end captivity forever in the UK

Botched transports left countless dolphins injured or worse. Devastating for the dolphins that survived, because - as my mentor often reminded me – many didn’t. My beloved Duchess and Herb’e (aka Flippa) were the first dolphins to arrive. I instantly formed a connection with Duchess – a link that would see me promoted from presenter to trainer within a few short weeks. However, the second shipment proved disastrous. As I recall it there was Scouse – blinded and air-burned in an overcrowded cargo hold. Baby Dai – an infant dolphin illegally imported. Stumpy – a sweet dolphin, too sick to train. Finally, Bubbles – blank, unreactive, mind broken due to the trauma of capture and transport.

Duchess and Herb’e were affectionately known as The Perfect Pair.  © The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy.
Duchess and Herb’e were affectionately known as The Perfect Pair. © The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy.

Disturbing days

Working the pens was physically and mentally gruelling. Fifteen-hour days were normal. We taught the dolphins to eat dead fish, and depriving them of sleep became necessary to meet the demanding requirements of  management. It was during this time that I witnessed my first tragic event – I call it a suicide attempt, but this is a phenomenon the captivity industry denies. To me, it seemed clear that Bubbles, overwhelmed by her circumstances, attempted self-harm by ramming the pool wall.

I also learned to catch the dolphins for transports, vet examinations and force-feeds. The latter was particularly distressing - removing dolphins from the water and lubricating herring and pushing them down their throats, often unsuccessfully as the dolphins would regurgitate. But worse than this was the damage inflicted on the dolphins’ psyches, because once they’d undergone this torturous procedure, they would often stop eating and this was extremely hard to reverse.

Catch 4

No dolphin should ever have to endure this trauma again in the UK © The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy

Within the challenges, the mind connection I formed with my beloved Duchess and Herb’e was a fond memory. It was their brilliance that allowed me and the dolphins to escape to our first commercial dolphinarium and move to Knowsley Safari Park, making me the first trainer to graduate from the secret pens and gain many more successes. You can find out more about my greatest achievements in my books The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy.

A turning point

So, when did my dream job deteriorate into a nightmare?

I quickly learned that even as head trainer, the welfare of the dolphins took a backseat to the demands of management. Overworked dolphins performed in up to ten shows per day, whilst substandard filtration systems, to reduce costs, led to uncomfortable conditions for them.

Juvenile and vulnerable dolphins were forced to share pools with mature, mentally disturbed dolphins who were dosed up on powerful meds, leaving them unable to escape the aggression, living in fear and repeatedly attacked. Sadly, the gentle Baby Dai died not long after being knocked out of the pool by a troubled ‘cellmate’. I even witnessed nine dolphins cramped in a pool fit for only five.

One of my infamous midnight water cleaning missions. © The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy
One of my infamous midnight water cleaning missions. © The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy

There were sinister whispers of ‘troublesome’ dolphins dying in dubious circumstances. Logbooks were destroyed to conceal high mortality rates. But losing my beloved Herb’e was utterly heartbreaking and marked a turning point that led to my departure. I walked away from the aqua circus and never returned - despite receiving a lucrative offer to train Europe’s only captive orca. My reason? I couldn’t stand the cruelty any longer.

David and Herbe'e
My only fond memory was the connection I had with Duchess (above) and Herb'e © The Perfect Pair Trilogy

In some parts of the world, conditions are as bad today as those that I witnessed back then. In others, welfare requirements have been increased. But the simple fact remains that a tank, no matter how big, is not the ocean. Super-intelligent whales and dolphins cannot indulge in their natural behaviour in a captive environment. They are at the mercy of the handlers, profit-driven companies and aggressive cellmates. Some are left to languish alone. Many develop deep psychological and psychiatric problems and physical illnesses. Their only escape is a tragic one – death.

Let’s support WDC’s End Captivity Forever campaign by signing their petition  – and let’s make sure that this vile industry is never again allowed to gain a foothold in the UK.



The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.

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About Hayley Flanagan

Hayley is WDC's engagement officer, specializing in creating brilliant content for our website and publications.