Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Conservation Myth

Today, whale and dolphin performances are portrayed not only as education, but even conservation, with marine parks and aquariums saving animals from the brink of extinction.

The captive display industry cites water pollution, predation from other species, starvation and competing with humans for food as justification for taking them out of the wild.

Those who suggest that captive whales and dolphins should be released back into the wild are scoffed at by the industry. In a statement by Marineland’s owner: “It is ironic, considering all the public understanding created by (the park), that well-meaning individuals with little knowledge of the subject criticize conditions at Marineland and suggest that dumping these animals into the wild is a viable or even preferable alternative.”

In 1992, when the Vancouver Aquarium was pressed to release its two orcas, Bjossa and Finna, the aquarium responded by saying: “To banish them from their home to fend for themselves, in order to satisfy some theoretical concept of ‘freedom’ would be cruel.”

The irony is that places like Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium have no problem with removing these animals from the wild, but consider it nonsense, even cruelty, to return them to the wild. Nevertheless, captive whales and dolphins have been successfully released back into the wild, even after many years, so this should not be ruled out.

The fact is that none of the whales or dolphins at these marine parks is not on the endangered species list, so conservation should not be used to justify taking animals out of their natural environments and keeping them in artificial ones. Dangers have always existed in the wild. Predators kill to survive and prey animals are killed for food. It is not our place to interfere with the natural balance.

Ultimately, real conservation requires habitat preservation. So far, very few zoos have made meaningful attempts to preserve animals in nature, and most zoos spend more on publicity and public relations than they do on programs involving animals.

Public display facilities point to their captive breeding programs as evidence of their commitment to conservation. But this is used simply to bolster the facility’s reputation and increase its revenue by gaining the support of a relatively naive public.

Captive breeding should not be mistaken for conservation. The World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission stresses that without a companion program of reintroduction, “such programs have little value toward genuine conservation.”

If an animal’s habitat is being destroyed or if a species’ numbers are declining rapidly, there may be a moral justification for bringing animals into captivity. This however, has not been the case with the whales and dolphins currently on display in Canada.

In 1999, after Marineland had been denied permission to remove a number of beluga whales from Canadian waters, the marine park wrote to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans explaining why it had imported nine female belugas from Russia: “This breeding program is essential for the preservation and longevity of beluga whales at Marineland. Secondly, these animals will enhance and significantly contribute to Marineland’s continuous improvement program of business development and future growth of its facilities and animals for worldwide visitors.”

For such places, captive breeding programs appear to be more about business growth and customer satisfaction than conservation, and to guarantee that they will not run out of performing animals.

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