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Flipper's Burden

WE'RE all for dolphins. Last month we called for an end to purse-seine tuna fishing - a practice that brutally kills hundreds of dolphins every day in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. But we aren't convinced that dolphins frolicking with tourists are exploited, as a spate of recent stories suggests. An article on Page 1 of the New York Times last week on the ``contemptible'' use of bottlenose dolphins at a handful of resort parks in Florida and Hawaii seemed like a slow-news summer story. ``Concerns'' were raised. Maybe the dolphins will begin to feel stress. The article wasn't clear on this. We soon forgot it.

Or thought we had. That night CBS repeated the story - having sent a film crew to catch porpoises hard at work giving rides in the water. Did that smile hide a tear? Next day National Public Radio was prominently quoting a marine biologist who was quite sure the whole bottlenose business was ``a modern day slave trade.''

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Have the media flip-pered?

In fact, the longer you look at it, the fuzzier the story gets. Worry over the dolphins' health seems exaggerated. Only two out of hundreds have actually died, and for reasons unrelated to swimming with people. Concern that the bottlenose population is imperiled is overblown as well. There are millions of dolphins in the wild. Since 1973, the resorts have captured only 500.

Their trainers truly love them. That's not hard. Contact with these intelligent creatures only furthers appreciation of them. Who knows how many kids (and adults) who played with a dolphin for an hour will add their voice and donations to groups working to protect marine mammals? Maybe Flipper even knows it. Anyone asked him or her?

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