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