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SeaWorld tragedy; Do zoos and aquariums have a place in today's world?

The tragic death of killer-whale trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando’s SeaWorld Park sparked an outcry against keeping cetaceans on public display. Should whales, dolphins and other wild animals be kept in captivity – especially for human amusement?

Do zoos, aquariums and other public facilities serve a legitimate purpose in keeping wild animals on display?

There is legitimate concern over how these creatures are treated even before going to a place like SeaWorld.

Many whales and dolphins are rounded up by commercial ‘fishermen’ in the most horrifying way imaginable; entire family pods are massacred on the spot, left to die in a gruesome bloodbath after their throats are slit. (Please take a moment to watch the video. it is tough to watch, but needs to be seen.)

The lucky ones, if ‘pretty enough’, are spared, to be sold into captive situations.

How any creatures, especially those as smart, sensitive and highly social as cetaceans, can then bond with human trainers is beyond comprehension. Yet, often they do.

Even humanely capturing and confining wild animals is ethically questionable for many people.

Not all zoo animals endure such horrors, however. Some are born in captivity or rescued from injury in the wild. Hence the conflict; are zoos and aquariums able to justify their existence?

The best, highest goal is always to let our wild creatures remain undisturbed in the wild. Some animals, though, due to injury, deformity or lack of suitable habitat, may not be able to survive in the wild.

Another truth is that wild places are (tragically) disappearing – mainly due to Man's relentless expansion.

Sometimes the only living individuals of a species left anywhere in the world are in captivity. Take, for instance, the journey of the California condor, which would be extinct if none had ever been captive-reared. After a number had been successfully reared in captivity, re-introductions into the wild began, and now it is possible to see this magnificent bird once again soaring wild and free in its native habitat.

While there are questions as to the ultimate viability of such captive-selected and raised animals when re-released, something is better than nothing.

So until we do the right thing and start designating more sacred, untouchable wild areas (fully-functioning, intact, interconnected ecosystems set aside as WILD places for EVER), accredited zoos and aquariums will have a defendable function.

To further justify their existence, EDUCATION, as well as captive-breeding for conservation, MUST be an equally important goal of any facility housing captive wildlife.

Looking into the eye of a living wild creature, (‘making contact’, as it were,) changes the way a child grows up to view the world. Coupled with strong messages about conservation and respect for Nature, zoos and aquariums can be a strong force for conservation. Often, those childhood moments of experiencing wild animals up close (and observing them as they interact with their keepers,) can nurture in the child a lifelong compassion for, and vested interest in, wildlife and nature.

But keeping captive wildlife has to be done with the most sensitive and enlightened husbandry techniques possible, such as offering abundant enrichment activities, ideal simulated habitat (in both size and structure), and correct social groups. Not all captive animals are miserable. In fact many are healthy and happy. It is how we house and treat them that make the difference, and, depending on the species, that challenge might be insurmountable. Meaning, some species, like cetaceans and pachyderms, may remain unsuitable subjects for public display facilities.

Highly intelligent, as well as highly social captive animals seem to benefit from the stimulation, mental challenge and diversion of training and interaction with keepers. Just as pet dogs seem more balanced and content when given structure and boundaries by their human ‘pack leaders’ (just watch The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan for example) , many zoo animals seem happier when given activities and jobs to do. These exercises replace (to a certain extent) ‘wild’ activities such as searching for food, shelter and mates.

Like anything, though, it needs to be the right activity and in the right dose. If the moment-by-moment moods and needs of the animal are ignored or misread/misinterpreted, the entire venture can unravel, sometimes with horrendous results.

Corporate demands (read: money) certainly will distort and overturn any animal policies that keepers advise, sometimes with tragic consequences such as what happened at SeaWorld.

We may never know the entire story of what happened with the orca Tilikum and his trainer. It may have been a simple accident, an innocent result of rough play, or it may have been the culmination of a series of oversights or tensions. One has to wonder, though, if a similar accident would have happened if there were no scheduled public shows that HAD to be put on, time after time, day after day.

Sometimes, too, animals, like teenagers, simply ‘act out’ and hurt a keeper, through no fault of the human.

Having been a professional keeper of wild animals in captive environments, I feel the majority of handlers and caretakers (at least in accredited zoos and aquariums, ) have a true, driving love and passion for their charges, as well as deep respect for the natural world. That love is something which shaped a lifetime of decisions leading to a career of animal care and stewardship.

I cannot speak for the corporate and business-management personnel, however; once money concerns enter any picture, things seem to become terribly distorted. Circus and other entertainment-only venues do not qualify as zoos, and are much harder to defend.

It’s a complex issue, full of risks, just as any other activity. Life is dangerous.

Zoos and aquariums have come light-years since the turn of last century, from sterile tile/bars/and concrete display pens to expansive, moated , enriched naturalistic exhibits. They may have light-years to go, but at least for now, there is still a vital function they can fill.

Whatever the outcome of this investigation, the keeping of cetaceans in theme parks and other captive facilities will now be under closer scrutiny, and zoo personnel will be re-evaluating procedures.

Perhaps this tragedy can serve to revolutionize captive husbandry so animals and humans can all benefit.

 

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