Animals

The World is Shifting…

Two of this week’s biggest news stories have been about Sea World – the deteriorating health of one of Sea World’s biggest stars Tilikum (also the subject of the controversial documentary Blackfish), and most recently, the announcement made Thursday that Sea World is going to stop breeding killer whales in captivity, following years of pressure from various animal rights groups and activists.

In addition to ending its breeding program, SeaWorld is phasing out its famous killer whale theatrical stunt shows and will soon replace them with natural orca encounters that will primarily focus on orca enrichment, exercise, and overall health.

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Let me start by saying, I love animals.  I mean, I really love them.  I care about them more than I care about most people.  And, as an animal lover, and former zookeeper, I have been getting asked a lot of questions about this topic.  “How do you feel about all of the stuff going on with Sea World?” “Do you think this is the best decision for the orcas?”

If I’m being honest, I find myself very conflicted about the whole thing…

I’ve spent the last few days browsing articles covering the stories as well as talking (and debating) with friends and the boyfriend about the sensitive topic. What I’ve learned is that, ironically, there really is no black or white (teehee…get it? Killer whales are black and white..) answer here.  Okay, perhaps this isn’t the best time to joke…  

On one hand,  I don’t think we have the ability (or capacity) to properly house a 10 ton animal and the public is clearly outraged by having these animals in Sea World’s care.  But my question is: where do we draw the line???

We have learned SO much by having these animals in human care, so when and how do we know when to stop?  And more importantly, why should we stop breeding orcas, and continue breeding orangoutangs and chimpanzees…or reptiles…or birds…?

It’s clear that society is shifting and people have grown more and more uncomfortable with having animals (especially those as majestic and intelligent as the orca) in human care. But we are forgetting that zoos have made enormous strides since their modern beginnings in Europe in the mid-19th century, when nearly all animals were confined to steel bars and cages and little thought was given to their comfort or welfare.  They were just another form of human entertainment.

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Photo credit: dailymail.co.uk

Today, zoos are much more concerned with the health and welfare of their animals. They are often housed in spacious, natural settings, allowing them to fulfill at least some of their biological functions, such as foraging and roaming.  And more importantly,  their human caretakers strive to make the animal’s lives the best they can possibly be by providing them with daily enrichment,  cleanliness and top-notch veterinary care.  Something a lot of people forget too, is that most of the animals you see in captivity were either born into captivity, or they are non-releaseable due to injury or illness.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but in this day and age, a lot of animals are safer in human care than they are in their own natural habitat.  It’s the sad truth, and if I’m being honest, I wish we didn’t need zoos and aquariums, because like any animal lover, I prefer to see them in their natural environments.  But the sad truth is, we need zoos and aquariums now more than ever.  Our rainforests are being burned and slashed, a number of animals are being killed for their meat, tusks and horns.  And let’s not forget that the oceans and beaches are polluted with trash and plastic every day, killing and injuring countless sea turtles, birds and fish. And have we forgotten that our temperatures are rising and killing off coral reefs?  I won’t stop there… everything with fins is being fished away to feed the growing hunger and greed of humans worldwide.

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Although habitat loss is an important consideration, the main threat to rhinos is poaching.  Rhino horn is a highly valued component of traditional Chinese medicine. Hundreds of rhinos are killed illegally for their horns every year.     photo credit: outlaw.org.za
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A friend of Bryan’s saw this poor gannet bird on the beach wrapped in a balloon and its ribbon. photo credit: Lazaro Ruda @ thelivingsea.com

So what’s my point?  My point is, that before you go bashing zoos and aquariums, spend some time researching what they are doing for wildlife conservation.  And ask yourself, what have you done?  Did you sign a petition trying to free the orcas from the tanks at Sea World?  Well la-di-da, good for you.  Have you spent any of your days off volunteering at a sea turtle rehab center, or walking along the beaches to pick up trash?  I didn’t think so…

I am so frustrated and saddened by people who sit behind their computer screens (some may call me a hypocrite and that’s okay), claiming to be environmentalists when all they do is sign petitions all day.  Many (not all) of these people have an unrealistic view of animals in their natural habitats and the state that they are in.  I also strongly believe that most animal caretakers working in zoos and aquariums all over the world, would say that they do in fact see the protester’s side and they only want what’s best for the animals in their care, while I don’t think that most of the protesters see the zookeeper’s side and they think the only solution is to release all animals in captivity.

No. I don’t have the answer. But what I do know is that my life changed when I was a little girl and I looked straight into the eyes of an orca (I wish I could find the picture) while on a trip to Sea World.  Sure, it was through a thick, safe glass tank, but at that moment, I knew that I wanted to work with animals in some way, shape or form – I wanted to help them in any way that I could.  For a long time, I even wanted to be a Shamu trainer at Sea World.  While I do agree, seeing these animals (and so many others) in captivity is difficult, I’m honestly not sure I would have pursued the career path that I did, if this moment, and so many other zoo moments, hadn’t happened.  I also know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

grizzly
This is me face-to-face with a grizzly bear cub at the Palm Beach Zoo. No more zoos means no more moments like this.                                                                                                                                     photo credit goes to my better half Bryan Clark @ adeeperblue.com

We have come a long way and I’m proud of that – from a time of steel bars, cages and terrified animals, to more natural settings. So, no matter what side you are on, I think we all can agree that our view on captive animals is shifting, and we need to shift with it, but before you go off on tangents about how awful zoos and aquariums like Sea World are, don’t forget that they are one of the most important tools we have in the world of conservation and research.

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Bryan and I feeding the giraffes at Lion Country Safari. 
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Me smooching Blossom, a one year old baby rhino I was lucky enough to work with and watch grow up.

Thank you for listening. 

Now I want to hear your thoughts on this controversial topic.  Be nice. Please, be nice. 

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5 thoughts on “The World is Shifting…

  1. Great thoughtful insight on such a sensitive subject nowadays, Mandy. As you mentioned, this topic is anything but black and white (except for the orca).

    IN MY OPINION, a case by case solution to the animals must be considered when we speak of captivity. Generally speaking, I FEEL that pulling a wild animal from its natural habitat to display at a zoo or aquarium should be avoided in almost all instances. Keeping an animal who in all cases can not survive on its own due to sickness, extreme pressures from humans, etc. might be one of the exceptions.

    In order for captivity to become accepted, I feel zoos (aquariums included) need to evolve. As you mentioned, they certainly have evolved (thank goodness!) from days past, but much work still needs to happen. The challenge becomes one of replicating the animal’s natural environment with the required living spaces they need. Therein lies the biggest challenge. In many zoos, captive animals have been taken out of the cages and given a small area to roam, but I FEEL it is far from adequate (I base this on my limited experiences visiting zoos).

    I volunteered for some time at Monkey Jungle in Miami and I worked hard to create an enrichment-filled area for the owl monkeys. Sadly, though, space was limited to a cage that was smaller than the size of an average closet. I feel animals in captivity need the ability to wander, hide, hunt, and feel as free as possible. Many zoos put a lot of effort into the aviaries and the richness of these places shows. I think more needs to be done for the other animals, and zoos should have a cap on how many animals they can keep based on the space they have available for the animals.

    I don’t feel any aquarium is capable of keeping mammals and, in many cases, most marine creatures content. Dolphins (Orcas being one of them) travel great distances daily and live in big family groups. Confinement in a small pool is an injustice. Most aquariums can not keep conditions that replicate the ocean and thus why so many marine creatures die, or lose all the vibrancy and color they normally attain in the wild. Captive marine mammals who could not survive on their own should have access to roam the ocean and return to a protected area as they please. Having spent a decade having wild dolphin encounters in the Bahamas, I could probably write a book on my opinion and thoughts on this subject.

    I know zoos are doing a lot of good and I applaud them for it, but here’s something I just considered while writing this… Do you feel zoos might be taking away from the revenue of countries who could benefit from having ecotours in place in order to see the animals in their wild natural habitat? For example, if people had to travel to Africa to see a lion do you think that would greatly decrease the problems African wildlife faces. The money the local African communities could make from tourism could be enough to encourage them conserve and protect their natural heritage. (I know… This is a utopian world I am imagining).

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    1. Thank you for your powerful words Laz. It is indeed a (very) sensitive topic – one in which I find challenging to talk about, but I am so happy that people are finally talking about it & more importantly, making strides to make things better.
      I agree with you and don’t think animals should be pulled from their natural habitat, but what a lot of people don’t realize (and what was displayed in Blackfish), is that this rarely happens anymore. Like I stated, MOST of the animals were either injured or born into captivity. I know not all of the facilities are as good as I would hope them to be, but I’m grateful we are making strides at improving them. I wish we didn’t need them – and maybe some day we will (hopefully) get to that point. And while I understand people’s frustrations, I also challenge them to see the “good in zoos” – at least in the zoos that truly are making a difference. My frustration is towards those who complain and don’t do their research. :/ Zoos (at least the good ones) do a lot for research, rehab and wildlife conservation – I was part of a program where we raised Guam rails (extinct in the wild after brown tree snakes were accidentally transported to Guam) and introduced them onto the island of Rota. There are now breeding colonies of these incredible birds. People tend to forget about these kinds of stories.

      I don’t know the answer to your question, but what I do know is that a lot of children (including myself as a child) can’t afford to take trips to Africa to see a lion in its natural habitat, so I worry this connection between our youth and wildlife will be lost if zoos vanish. I would love for there to be more ecotours and sanctuaries – who wouldn’t? In a perfect world, none of these animals would be confined to small spaces and they would be free to roam in their natural habitats and the people in these poor villages and communities wouldn’t need to kill a rhino for its horn, or an elephant for its tusks – trust me, I want this too. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. :/
      I don’t have the answer, but I’m glad people are talking…

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