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Ranting On...SeaWorld

This past week Dame Jane Goodall made headlines calling for the closure of SeaWorld.  For those of you who haven't had their heads in the sand in recent years, this can hardly be shocking.  In the wake of the documentary Blackfish (and its widely-seen airing on CNN), attending SeaWorld has become the moral equivalent of eating veal or littering.  The treatment of marine mammals at SeaWorld, particularly orca whales, as well as the safety risks associated with keeping these animals in captivity has resulted in the parks being questioned and with a larger moral question about whether or not they should exist.  I figured since Goodall brought it up it was the perfect time to discuss the subject in our Friday rant.

Part of me wants to view this issue in black-and-white.  After all, there is a surface-level right answer here (not to mention that black-and-white color scheme would match the orca motif).  The reality is that I think that the performances with the killer whales, while admittedly mesmerizing and amazing, need to stop.  The same should be said for seals and dolphins too-animals are not there for our amusement, and while I get the fun here (one of my earliest memories is getting kissed by a seal at a water show), I think we all can acknowledge that turning these giant animals into some form of cheap entertainment is wrong.  This is also true for circuses (again, a truly wonderful childhood memory), as the Ringling Brothers have acknowledged with their recent move away from having elephants in their programs.

But I do acknowledge that this is not an easy thing to give up.  As I mentioned above, a lot of wonderful childhood memories are associated with these kinds of shows, and admitting that those memories are not only disappearing for future generations, but were probably not appropriate to begin with is a difficult pill to swallow.  It's also something that, quite frankly, inspires a lot of future animal-lovers and even people who devote their vocation or volunteering to helping these animals.  I probably started my love affair with the environment early on with seeing the majesty of elephants at the circus.  I grew up in a small town; attending the circus was one of the few times that you would get to see animals of this nature.  Experiences like these with animals is something that inspired me to want to fight for environmental causes, so I will acknowledge the irony that this is something that I support, even if it's what may have been a catalyst for my love of endangered and wild mammals.

The reason I bring this aspect up is that one of the principle drivers of a love of animals is not just circuses and water shows, but also zoos and aquariums in general, which feel like a pretty quick hop-and-skip away from the closing of SeaWorld.  We're not talking here about large sanctuaries, like the ones that be-spot Africa (though admittedly these have HUGE issues in general, considering that poachers seem to be able to break into them with great ease...and in a side note, I surely hope there is a special corner of hell for poachers of endangered species), but instead the zoos we used to visit every summer and that our children beg to attend every year.  These zoos and aquariums, while not necessarily having animal shows (though admittedly they typically have performances involving birds and reptiles that may qualify under this umbrella), don't have the same sort of living quarters that the wild has.

A great example of this, for years, was the polar bear exhibit at my local Como Zoo, which was depressingly small.  A polar bear literally spent its days jumping in and out of the water all summer long.  Admittedly this exhibit has now gained in size, but this is a massive animal, one that covers miles and miles of the Arctic to find food, and is evolutionary prepared to cover far greater expanses than any zoo can offer.  The same can be said for animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, and monkeys, some of the most popular creatures you'll find at any zoo.  Part of me feels like they same moral compass applies here-shouldn't these animals all be in the wild?  Admittedly we don't have the same situation where the animals are being forced to do performances that are unsafe for humans and basically train them to be something they are not, but they are still captive, they are still frequently separated from their young-isn't that the same concept?

But eliminating zoos and aquariums also eliminates a lot of public empathy for these creatures.  Future generations may not know these animals period if climate change deniers have anything to say about it, but if we finally get some common sense in that department we might be depriving them of experiences with these animals that cause them to be advocates for the creatures.  People didn't care about saving the whales just from abstract principles-they cared about them because they saw one in captivity, and had a moment with it.  The same is true for all endangered species-empathy without a source rarely works for a long period of time, and I worry that the greatest strength of a zoo (animal preservation and awareness) may disappear with the elimination of them.

So while I support eliminating animal performance shows, and think that there should be stronger regulations about the size of habitats in zoos and aquariums, I do feel that we can't quite close down all of these establishments without first finding another source for what benefit they bring.  So turn SeaWorld into a sanctuary of some sort for public viewing, but I'm not quite ready for it to shut down its doors.

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