Monday, July 2, 2007

Changing Attitudes and Alternatives to Captivity

Since the mid-sixties, when huge numbers of orcas were rounded up for capture in the Pacific Northwest, people have debated the ethics of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.

In 1975, groups like Greenpeace began protesting at Marineland and public outcry grew in the eighties as captures became more visible and more people learned about the complex social lives of whales and dolphins.

The movie Free Willy and the plight of Keiko brought the issue to the world stage in the nineties, with a number of politicians, movie stars and millions of children calling for an end to whales and dolphins in captivity.

Since then, several facilities have re-evaluated their position on keeping cetaceans in captivity. In 1998, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) reported that at least 20 amusement or marine parks in North America had permanently closed or discontinued keeping cetaceans.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, specifically designed to educate and delight visitors about the wonders of ocean life without exploiting whales and dolphins, joins over 70 other facilities in North America that have decided not to display cetaceans.

The Montreal Biodome in Quebec, after announcing plans to exhibit beluga whales, relented in 1995 after a successful public awareness campaign by Canadian animal protection groups. Today the Biodome shows films instead, educating the public about the impacts of water pollution on the St. Lawrence River beluga population.

Documentary films and live satellite hook-ups to animals in the wild also offer students in the classroom the chance to learn about the natural behaviours of whales and dolphins in an informative and non-invasive way.

Whale watching tours, a significant source of revenue for coastal communities, allow people to view cetaceans in their natural habitats, allowing the animals to approach them, if they choose, and on their own terms.

Public Opinion Polls

Surveys and public opinion polls have been used by the display industry to justify the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity. Industry-sponsored polls are designed to support that industry’s agenda and should always be viewed with that in mind.

According to Marineland, a 1998 research study cited over 90% of its respondents as supportive of the role of marine mammal parks as a “major educational vehicle for learning about marine mammals” and for “heightening the awareness of the importance of preservation/conservation.” The following year, a second survey was conducted at the park. Some of the questions asked included:

· Do you have a greater appreciation for marine mammals as a result of your visit to Marineland today? (Yes: 92.3%);
· Do you feel that personal interaction with marine mammals (ie. Observation, touching) gives you a better understanding of marine mammals than reading a book or watching a TV program about them? (Yes: 93.8%);
· Do you believe that keeping marine mammals in captivity is acceptable if the results are greater public awareness, education and appreciation of marine mammal species? (Yes: 88.6%); and
· In your opinion, are the marine mammals you’ve seen here today well cared for? (Yes: 91%).

These results however, are disingenuous and the answers predictable. By polling only park visitors, Marineland is certain to get the desired responses. People who are against keeping marine mammals in captivity would not be there in the first place.

Furthermore, the opinions of the general public (in regards to cetacean physiology and behaviour) should not be cited as proof of proper animal husbandry practices, or of practices that take place behind closed doors.

In contrast, a 2003 public opinion poll of the Greater Vancouver area by the national research firm R.A. Malatest & Associates found that:

· 74.3% of respondents felt that the best way to learn about the natural habits of whales and dolphins is by viewing them in the wild, either on TV, in movies, via internet, etc., or on whale watching tours,
· 71.1% thought that the physical and behavioral needs of whales and dolphins cannot be met in captivity, and
· 68% felt it is not appropriate to keep whales and dolphins in captivity.

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