Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tragedy at Sea World

Typically, I try to keep this blog a good place for objective feedback. Today, I'm going to soapbox a bit... a few days ago, tragedy befell Sea World Orlando as one of their trainers was killed by an orca. Part of why I am personally and deeply saddened by this incident, aside from the loss of life, is how it will impact the way zoos and aquariums are viewed by many. More importantly, perhaps, is the reaction people have to animals being trained to perform for human entertainment. And so the debate begins...

I stand on the PRO side for the existence of zoos and aquariums. As an environmental educator, nothing reaches people, especially children, the way a live animal does. In my experience, the closer and more intimate the encounter, the longer lasting the impact is on that group or individual. Not every facility can provide fence-free views like the Australia Zoo's Koala exhibit, nor should they, but each place no matter the size has individual opportunities for a personal experience. In addition, these places often serve as hospitals and rehabilitation centers to rescue and release (when possible) animals that would otherwise die - in many cases directly because of irresponsible human behaviors. These permanently injured animals make for wonderful ambassadors too.
Most people would never see an amazing animal, like a whale, in the wild under any circumstances. Too many never see the ocean or even learn how to swim, so being able to bring a live animal into context for a landlocked individual is priceless. When it comes to conservation, many negative environmental impacts come far from coastal communities; that leaves the mass uneducated completely apathetic to a cause that is as relatable as life on another planet. The ocean and its creatures literally mean nothing to a vast majority of humans on earth, so how else do we make them care enough to protect it?
Also, much of what we know for many rare and endangered species is based on captive animal research. Most AZA accredited facilities are involved in wildlife research and conservation directly as well by funding the researchers, and trust me - when it comes to funding, non-profits and non-medical research becomes cut throat competition for very few dollars.
... which brings us to the "entertainment" portion of the conversation...
The masses want to be entertained, and while this is not a gladiator arena of blood and dirt, training intelligent animals to perform tricks is an attention grabber. People pay good money for it. As discussed before, this money is hard for rescue efforts to come by at all, and Sea World funds many important projects. Take away "shows" and you are reducing the funding and footage for research, conservation, documentaries, and education. There is a trend toward "natural behavior" shows, and THIS will be the future for animal programs. But teaching the humans to forget about the thrill of these spectacular shows as future generations come along will be difficult to do without chastising or dousing the fragile compassion harbored for wildlife (i.e. when I was a kid, we used to ride on the sea turtles backs as they crawled around the beach *gasp!!*).

Check out the article below for details on the accident and the trainer, and let me know where you stand on these issues.,0,6076530.story

I decided to include a photo and video from a performance a couple of years ago because admit it... THIS is why we go to Sea World. You can see great rehabilitation efforts and thousands of fish often inaccessible or too dangerous to be around in the wild... but everyone wants to see the cetaceans vaulting through the air, out of their element and into our lives.

So, knowing the intelligence of killer whales... what does it mean that we as humans keep them captive and teach them to perform tricks on command? As long as they are captive, training keeps an intelligent animal engaged and helps avoid depression; but if an animal can get depressed, should it be captive at all? Personally, I think killer whales need not be captive. If I remember correctly, the sea lion and otter show was just as entertaining and not nearly so dangerous for the trainers, at least. As many little marine-biologists-to-be... I wanted to be a dolphin trainer as a kid, then I thought the sea lions seemed just as smart and way more fun. Now, I am passionate for sea turtles. But the ocean is the calling for me, not the species.

This topic is so deep, I could carry on all day, but instead- I will go watch Planet of the Apes for the millionth time and ponder these questions with popcorn in hand.


No comments: