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BALTIMORE — The big question facing Baltimore’s National Aquarium — whether to keep Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the amphitheater pool or release them to an ocean-side sanctuary — is the latest twist in the decades-long evolution of American zoos and aquatic attractions from circuslike menageries to portals into the natural environment.

Much of the change is driven by emerging scientific evidence that shows the advanced intellect of marine mammals compared to species such as sharks and puffins.

That has led officials at the 33-year-old Inner Harbor anchor to rethink the dolphin display as they seek to emphasize conservation.

The debate resonates among scientists, activists and some members of the public who see the consequences of containing dolphins — which sometimes show signs of chronic stress and self-mutilation — as a crisis of conscience.

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It’s also a high-stakes issue for the aquarium — and Baltimore.

The aquarium, where adult tickets run upward of $30, risks losing visitors and revenue if the popular dolphins are moved.

And Baltimore would be hurt by any drop-off at the aquarium, whose 1.3 million annual visitors make it one of the city’s biggest tourist destinations.

Pikesville resident Bunny Bernstein said that when she took her grandchildren to the aquarium five years ago her “stomach got upset” by the acrobatic stunts the animals were performing.

“I couldn’t stand to watch it,” she said. “I’ve never been back. I just think it’s terrible. It’s like the elephants at the circus.”

In recent years, documentaries such as “Blackfish,” a CNN film about orcas in captivity and the 2010 killing of a Sea World trainer, and “Keiko: The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy,” have given the debate more prominence among the public.

Scientists and activists say that if the National Aquarium moved the dolphins to a sanctuary, it would be the first major institution to take such a step.

Many still believe, however, that putting animals on display in zoos and aquariums brings a significant societal value, especially for inspiring children.

“What I am really worried about is, kids are getting totally separated from the natural world,” said Temple Grandin, a renowned animal-science professor at Colorado State University and the subject of a 2010 HBO biopic.

“Kids get interested in things they get exposed to. I am worried that if people don’t get exposed to dolphins, they are just not going to care about them.”

The National Aquarium’s move comes even as attractions in other cities have spent millions of dollars in recent years to develop bigger dolphin shows.

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, for example, touts its AT&T Dolphin Tales show’s actors, costumes and an original score “performed and recorded by a 61-piece orchestra at Sony Studios in Hollywood.”

The National Aquarium announced in May that under the direction of CEO John Racanelli, who came to Baltimore in July 2011, a team of consultants is evaluating the dolphin attraction’s future role.

The process, called BLUEprint, is focused on exploring how the aquarium can show the connection between humans and the environment, and motivate action toward preservation.

“We’re trying to open people’s eyes to the ocean and the aquatic places in their lives,” Racanelli said. “That’s our life-support system.”

BLUEprint will also assess the aquarium’s presence in Washington, D.C., perhaps with the creation of an “ocean embassy,” and re-imagine the aquarium experience with more cohesive exhibits.

Specifically, aquarium leaders will decide whether to relocate the dolphins, create a Chesapeake Bay wetland exhibit in the water between the piers and develop collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution.

Aquarium officials have not determined potential locations for a dolphin sanctuary, but Racanelli said one would have to be created in a warmer climate to suit the marine mammals.

No timeline has been set for their decisions.

The aquarium eliminated its 20-minute dolphin performance show about two years ago.

Officials said at the time that they wanted the exhibit to offer something new and different, while increasing the number of visitors who could engage with the dolphins.

Now, the eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in its care — including 5-year-old Bayley and 42-year-old Nani — can be observed continuously in the amphitheater, where the public can also interact with trainers.

Racanelli said he would never envision an aquarium devoid of live animals.

“We try to balance the needs of the animals with the need for the public to be able to build emotional relationships with animals, in a time when increasingly fewer and fewer people have any natural contact with animals.”

Still, he noted that marine mammals, including dolphins and whales, are large-brained, cognitively advanced species.

“That’s why there is a strong debate around the life and times of dolphins and whales,” Racanelli said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, says the public should view animals in their natural habitat or on documentaries such as the series “Planet Earth.”

“Captivity can’t even begin to replicate the natural environment,” said Jared Goodman, director of animal law for the PETA Foundation. “Zoos and aquariums claim to promote education. The only thing they teach is, it’s OK to have these animals locked up in these enclosures where they are bored, lonely and deprived of all control of their own lives.”

Alfred Beulig, a biology professor at New College of Florida, said there’s no scientific reason dolphins shouldn’t be held in captivity.

But there are reasons why aquariums must take extra care if they do keep them. As mammals, dolphins’ brains work differently than those of other animals, and that requires a different environment than is provided for, say, sharks.

“They’re a social animal. If you deprive them of social stimulation you have to compensate for it somehow,” Beulig said. “The key question here is: When you keep dolphins are you adhering to their specific requirements and predilections or not?”

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