Friday, August 24, 2012

After 50 Years of Animal Suffering at Marineland, People are Taking Notice. Will it Make a Difference?

Kandu, an orca at Marineland, was forced to live in isolation for years. He died in December, 2005

 “You can judge a nation, and it’s moral progress, by the way it treats its animals.” - Mohandas K. Gandhi

Ever since the St. Catharines Standard wrote a story about Baby Jane, a captive pilot whale with “suicidal tendencies” back in 1967, critics and animal rights advocates have been trying to dispel the myth that “Everyone Loves Marineland”.

Baby Jane would apparently charge head-on into the metal bars of her holding tank, and then smash into the walls of it, “with blood gushing from a gash in her head,” writhing “wildly about” and trying to throw herself out of the water.

The paper had also reported that she’d been inactive since she “arrived” at Marineland (read: forcibly captured and put on display) and performers who swam with her regularly would swear she was crying.

A sad story. What’s even sadder is that, almost 50 years later, we still have places that keep animals captive for our amusement.

If anything, the Inside Marineland expose by the Toronto Star shows that the more things change the more they stay the same. Every few years or so, some news outlet raises the issue about keeping wild animals in captivity - this isn’t the first time the public has been told that animals are suffering at Marineland - and they usually conclude that there should be regulations in place to make sure the animals don’t suffer needlessly during their incarceration, and that monitoring by some independent watchdog group could ensure that the animals’ basic needs are met.

A lot of talk, but then things go on as they always have and the whales, dolphins, sea lions, deer, bears and other animals suffer and waste away as they always have in places such as these. And this little song and dance routine between the media, animal welfare groups and politicians has been going on for nearly six decades.

Concerns vary year to year, from tuberculosis outbreaks to bear escapes, from deer attacks to an increase in marine mammal fatalities (over 40 whales have died at the Niagara Falls marine park since it first opened). Now it’s water quality.

But ask yourself this: What if the water quality was good? What if the seals’ eyes weren’t being burned out of their sockets by chemically-treated water? Would everything be okay then? Does clean water justify captivity?

captivity, n., the state or period of being held, imprisoned, enslaved, or confined; servitude or bondage; imprisonment. – Webster’s Dictionary

For some, myself included, the answer is no. And I think this is where the story fell flat with me. Exploitation, imprisonment and slavery of other animals can never be justified. We put criminals behind bars because they pose a danger to society and because they infringe on our rights and freedoms. We imprison them not only because they threaten our security, but because we feel they need to be punished for their crimes.

So what crimes exactly have these animals committed? What heinous acts are they guilty of? If anything, their crime is that they’re smart enough to be trained to do what we want them to do, but not smart enough to hide that fact. And so we take away THEIR freedom.

They’re captured – torn from their families and forcibly removed from their homes – or bred in captivity to live out the rest of their short lives (confinement significantly reduces both the quality and length of life in marine mammals) in artificial, sterile, featureless pools, made to perform for humans who get to be with their families, and go back to their homes when they tire of watching the animals “battle the Black Knight”, do water ballet or some other ridiculous and degrading circus trick.

The animals that don’t die during the capture or transportation to the marine park often go insane or become sick and die shortly after. Stress from captivity, as well as the young being separated from their mothers, leads to health problems, stereotypical behaviours, aggression towards other animals - including their human trainers - and death. 

Their echolocation – sound waves they use to navigate through the water - hits the walls of their tank and bounces back in a meaningless jumble of noise. A former dolphin trainer described “the concrete tanks to the acoustical dolphin are what a blinding house of mirrors would be to us.”

This isn’t new information. Animal activists, former trainers, ex-employees and marine biologists have been saying this for years. They’ve protested, they’ve petitioned, and they’ve tried to educate the public any way they can.

And what has the public’s response been? It’s been to go to Marineland, in droves, year after year after year, to see the whales, dolphins and other marine mammals splash about, jump through hoops and clown around. Sure, they might feed the sad-looking bears, deer and bison on the way out, because they feel so sorry for them, but they’re supporting cruelty and suffering nonetheless.  

So the blame cannot fall entirely on Marineland. A naïve and indifferent public (or worse, a willingness to be naïve) is what shysters like John Holer count on. And up until now anyway, he’s been laughing all the way to the bank, along with the blessings of city councilors and the support of the police department.

Are we that heartless, are we so uncaring about the suffering of other animals, that we can hide our collective heads in the sand for so long? Of the myriad ways that we can entertain ourselves, and the countless venues we can visit to be entertained, why do we still go to places like Marineland? Do we really need to suck the life out of these animals just to make our own lives more enjoyable? Are we vampires?

One of the most common retorts I used to hear from park visitors while I stood leafleting outside Marineland years ago, was that if this place was as bad as I said it was, the police, the government or the humane society would have shut it down years ago. Naïve indeed!

The truth is, the law only criminalizes “unnecessary” suffering, and one can always argue that any kind of suffering is necessary (torturing primates, cats or dogs to find a cure for cancer would qualify as necessary suffering for a lot of people, as well as the “necessity” to see a whale kiss a little girl under the guise of “education”) and since these animals can’t tell us they’re suffering (although they do show it), we tend to look the other way and comfort ourselves with the delusion that the animals are happy.

The other problem is that animals are still considered property under the law. That means we can do whatever we want with them, to them, as long as they aren’t someone else’s property. And even then, cruel and abusive treatment is only illegal if you do it to certain kinds of animals – think of what the cow goes through before her throat is slit – and emotional or mental suffering, like making a whale live his life in an oversized bathtub, or forcing solitary animals like bears to live with dozens of other ones, is rarely seen as abusive.

“All our facilities are legal,” John Holer was quoted as saying in The Star. And he’s right (although Marineland has been busted in the past for bringing animals into the country illegally, and pleaded guilty to 44 counts under the Environmental Protection Act for running an illegal garbage dump in 1984), what he’s doing is perfectly legal.

So the question needs to be: Should it be legal? Is it right? Places like Marineland, African Lion Safari and Zooz (!), make their money off the suffering, exploitation and enslavement of other animals. Because we (humans) think that we’re the masters of the universe, we figure it's our “right” to play god with the rest of creation (how has that worked out so far?). Whales, walruses and sea lions are no more suited to live in concrete tanks than deer and bears are suited to live in treeless paddocks. It’s unnatural, it’s cruel, and it needs to be abolished.

I applaud the Toronto Star for having the courage to tackle this issue, but will anything change because of this story? Will attendance take a nose-dive at Marineland? Will our politicians and lawmakers finally wake up? To quote David Suzuki - who once called Marineland a thug and would love to see it shut down once and for all - I’m hopeful, but not optimistic. As long as good people continue to let evil triumph, to paraphrase Edmund Burke, nothing will change.

Because next week or next month or next year, when little Johnny wants to go see the whales with his class, or when the company holds its summer picnic at the marine park, we’ll conveniently forget about all this, or convince ourselves that Marineland has cleaned up its act, along with its water, and that everything is okay.
Until we change the way we look at other animals, until we extend our circle of compassion to INCLUDE the animals, their suffering will continue.