Earlier this month, a dolphin turned on its trainer at the Miami Seaquarium. It was a heartbreaking experience, but luckily both are doing well.
Predictably, some animal rights activists have renewed their call for no animals to be kept in captivity – whether in aquariums or zoos, on the grounds that it is inhumane.
They completely miss the point.
Blaming the dolphin’s behavior in captivity is overstated, for several reasons. First, the Seaquarium investigation concluded that “Sundance” and the trainer had an unexpected collision, which spooked the dolphin. This seems plausible, since humans and all other animals often react the same way when startled or jostled in unexpected ways. Second, of the more than 2,000 dolphins in captivity around the world, very few exhibit violent or aggressive behavior. In other words, in the hundreds of millions of hours that dolphins have spent in aquariums, the overwhelming majority of that time has been without incident.
Third, given that Sundance is 23 – and the average lifespan of a dolphin is between 20 and 25 – maybe he was just grumpy and dealing with the effects of old age – just like people. Whatever the reason, it is not fair to simply condemn “captivity” as the culprit of a highly unusual event.
But it should come as no surprise that some are calling for extreme measures. Our society has become so intolerant of risk that when a single event occurs, the reaction is often grossly exaggerated, with necessary calls for bans and/or additional rules that are not necessary.
We cannot afford to be paralyzed by rare incidents in the mistaken belief that they are commonplace. They are not. Vigilance and common sense are the answers — and that applies as much to animals in captivity as it does to any other area of risk, from guns to airplanes to the ball game in the schoolyard.
Just this week, headlines broke the news that three endangered tigers had been killed by snares in Indonesia – a blow to conservation efforts to boost their numbers. Likewise, many were saddened to learn that a trophy hunter in Botswana killed one of Africa‘s few remaining “tusker” elephants – animals whose massive tusks weigh more than 100 pounds each.
Not so long ago, many would have reacted to such occurrences with a nonchalant shrug. But because we have come to “know” about these types of animals, through factual interactive exhibits in zoos and circus demonstrations (which “humanize” the animals and increase our affinity for them), there has been a wave of anxiety. and empathy.
But remove this special “bond” and animal welfare demands will drop dramatically.
1) Undoubtedly, the animal rights movement espouses some common-sense positions and should be commended for raising the standards of care and protection for many species. Unfortunately, the more radical elements – which often make headlines – continue to push for extreme measures, such as animal-free circuses, closing zoos and turning water parks/aquariums into a distant memory.
Where will this end? If dolphins are to be “released” from captivity, then by definition so are every whale, seal, sea lion and fish, because keeping them in clean, safe, vet-maintained facilities must also be “ inhuman”. But it won’t stop there. What about safari attractions in America? Should they also be closed? And of course, since animals “deserve” the same rights as humans, that means there’s no animal research for the scientists who find the cure for cancer and other deadly diseases. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for”.
2) This author had the indescribable experience of swimming with trained dolphins in Curacao. They put on acrobatic shows and interacted with people in the water – clearly content with their lives. How can such a claim be made? Because some dolphins regularly leave their ‘captivity’ to accompany a dive boat out to sea, interacting with the divers as they explore the sea. This, of course, allows them to get away from their ‘masters’ and d to be freed from captivity forever.
But they don’t. Instead, they return to their enclosures to be with their families – both dolphins and humans. The point: as long as animals in captivity are treated well, it’s not cruel.
3) There is a clear correlation between rebounding animal populations and the rise in popularity of zoos and water parks. SeaWorld opened in 1964, and it’s no coincidence that after two decades of treating people to the wonders (and plight) of whales, a whaling moratorium was instituted in 1986. such a ban probably wouldn’t have happened if the will of the people wasn’t behind it. We thank you, SeaWorld, and so do the whales.
Likewise, poaching, particularly in Africa, has declined, largely due to people’s awareness of this threat and their desire to fight back. While poaching remains a problem, efforts to stop it, funded by private entities and governments, are keeping the bad guys on the run. But that money will only keep flowing if the people demand it. Take away animal access here, and poaching becomes “someone else’s” problem there. Result? End of story for species like the black rhinoceros.
4) Should there be additional oversight (or at least better enforcement of existing regulations) on how animals here are trained and treated? Absolutely. Hooks were often used to train elephants, but because they hurt the animals, they were banned in many places. This kind of progress needs to be emulated, so let’s focus on painless, humane methods of training intelligent animals. Just as good dog training does not involve physical abuse, it can be the same with elephants and other animals.
And instead of culling high-performing elephants, why not limit their lifespan to five or ten years, after which they can “retreat” to animal reserves? In this way, everyone wins: people, especially children, learn firsthand about animals, and “performers” can live most of their lives in huge open spaces. But instead, elephants keep disappearing from the public eye, severing the connection so many people had with these magnificent animals – or denying young children the opportunity altogether.
5) There must be better messages for the enormous benefits that zoos and water parks provide. They teach millions of people about animal life and habitats, save countless creatures through rescue efforts, and lobby for more conservation. And their employees are on the front lines in the fight to rejuvenate our polluted and over-exploited lands and oceans.
It is important to remember that zoos and water parks literally preserve the lineages of species that would otherwise have died out in the wild; that the research they conduct leads to cures for humans and animals; and that the children of today, who will be the zoologists, marine biologists, naturalists and global citizens of tomorrow, are inspired by experiencing animals up close and personal, which has changed the state of American spirit from needless slaughter (like the decimation of the buffalo) to one of conservation.
Americans, better than anyone, can pressure other nations to enact protective measures so endangered species can bounce back and thrive rather than follow the path of the dodo.
But – and this is the critical point – out of sight is out of mind. If we don’t show the magnificence of animals to our young minds, their imaginations will never be ignited and the fire to protect animals will be left to others – which means it won’t happen. How is this in the best interest of “animal rights?” »
It’s time to stop dodging the elephant in the room – that extreme measures are, ironically, a threat to animal preservation – and give future generations the chance to marvel at the miraculous animals of the nature. Otherwise, as David Attenborough asked, “Are we happy to assume that our grandchildren will never see an elephant except in a picture book?” »
Let’s hope not.
Chris Freind is a freelance columnist and commentator whose column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @chrisfreind.