Thursday, July 5, 2007

Captive Whales as Education

Like zoos, marine parks claim their purpose is to educate the public about wildlife. Only by seeing captive animals up close, the industry says, can people really develop an understanding and deep appreciation for them.

It has also been suggested that without viewing whales and dolphins in captivity, the public would not be able to care about what happens to ones in the wild.

As Marineland has stated: “While books and films are great, nothing compares with seeing a real live dolphin, beluga or killer whale up close. Seeing these animals up close arouses people’s concern for, and curiosity about, these animals so that they care about what happens to them in the wild.”

Statements such as these however, are designed to increase attendance; there are no facts to support them. Indeed, millions of children spoke out against keeping whales in captivity after seeing the film Free Willy. On the contrary, large numbers of people, after seeing these animals in tiny enclosures, come to feel sorry for them; they become concerned about what happens to them in captivity.

Rarely, if ever, are visitors reminded that the very animals they are seeing in captivity have been removed from their natural homes in the wild to be put on display so people can ‘connect’ with them. Indeed, if people were aware of the brutal method of taking whales and dolphins, the shortened life spans and the effects of captivity on the individual animals, many of them would not visit marine parks and aquariums.

If it were impossible to care about wild cetaceans without seeing them in captivity first, then no one would have given a second thought about Humphrey. In 1985, a young humpback whale, dubbed Humphrey by the media, became trapped in San Francisco Bay. The outpouring of concern to help the animal find his way back to sea was enormous and the story made news all over the world.

This event was repeated in 2005 when a female humpback whale became trapped in 20 to 30 commercial crab pot lines off the coast of California. Several rescuers were able to free the whale while news of her rescue circled the globe via the Internet yet nobody has ever seen a humpback whale in captivity.

The popularity of dinosaurs, especially with children, is another case in point. The fact that children love dinosaurs – despite never having seen real live ones – is another example that you don’t have to see them up close to care about them.

Even Dr. Randy Wells, considered to be the world's leading authority on wild dolphin populations, grew up in the American Midwest and claims he learned and became interested in studying dolphins by watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries on TV.

So what exactly does one learn from seeing whales and dolphins in captivity? Aside from the knowledge that these animals can be taught to do circus tricks and stunts, all people really learn is the size, shape and colour of the animals, and various facets of their life in captivity.

Some studies by the captive display industry even suggest that the overwhelming majority of visitors do not increase their knowledge of the natural world or their empathy for it by seeing wild animals in captivity. Critics of such facilities see ‘education programs’ at marine parks as feeble attempts to fool, or perhaps placate audiences into believing they are supporting a worthy enterprise.

Despite the propaganda from those who would have the public believe their facilities are great learning establishments, it’s worth remembering that people go to zoos and marine parks to be entertained, not educated.

According to Randy Brill of the Chicago Zoological Society: “of all our endeavours, the ‘shows’ reach the greatest number of people and provide the greatest portion of the revenues necessary to keep our facilities running. Dad and mom and the kids are not looking for a technical lecture on cetaceans. They are spending their money and they want to be entertained.”

As the Humane Society of the United States points out, exposure to live captive animals does exactly the opposite of what the industry claims: instead of sensitizing visitors to marine mammals and their habitat, it desensitizes people to the inherent cruelty of removing these animals from their natural habitats and holding them captive.

Public perceptions have changed a lot since the sixties and seventies and a growing number of people are finding it unacceptable to capture and imprison animals purely for entertainment purposes. This has forced the marine park industry to reinvent itself, at least from a public relations perspective. It is now quite common for places that display whales and dolphins to promote themselves as not only amusement parks, but as educational institutions as well.

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