The ruling that rescued Dutch killer whale, Morgan, is to be sentenced to a life in an amusement park, rather than being released back into the wild, has caused waves that have aggravated deep rooted animal rights debates. These battles, commonly confined to niche political groups, have made their way to the surface of popular media due to a recent onslaught of animal related tragedies.
I have always been an animal fanatic. As such, I don’t necessarily agree with zoos and aquariums - a conclusion I came to after a trip to New York a few years ago. Like most kids, I grew up with regular visits to both, and was once even lucky enough to visit the mecca of all animal showcases - Sea World. Back then, I thought nothing of captivity or cruelty. I was merely in awe of the spectacle. Perhaps, as I later found out, because my local zoo was one of the best in the country, but more likely as it just didn’t cross my juvenile mind. A few years ago, however, two experiences changed my outlook.
First was a visit to the renowned Bronx zoo. There I became voyeur to a polar bear that sweltered in the intense summer sun, trapped miserably on a minute slab of (painted blue) concrete. As I watched it with guilty amazement, one striking thought would not leave my mind. That thought was: if I find these American kids’ constant screams overbearing, chances are, so does the, solitary by nature, polar bear.
My second encounter was just a few days later, when I visited Coney Island aquarium. Now for those who have never been, Coney Island is an unsettling place in itself. Somewhat reminiscent of a post apocalyptic Disney Land - deserted and derelict with a lingering smell of candy floss. Inside the aquarium, which once held killer whales and dolphins, were a few despondent seals. Their pond-sized tank was so green with algae that you could barely make them out - a far cry from the crystal clear waters of the Antarctic. It was these two harrowing encounters that made me see the wood for the trees.
Controversy was fueled last year (February 2010) when a Sea World killer whale, Tilikum, jumped from its tank and grabbed an experienced trainer from a poolside platform, dragging her underwater and drowning her in front of the show’s audience. It then came to light that this whale had been linked to two other deaths. Which is not that surprising when, as extreme animal rights group PETA point out, you take into consideration they are kept in, what is to them, essentially a “bathtub”. Surrounded by loud music and endless streams of rowdy, laughing crowds banging the glass from all 360 degrees. It must be, I suppose, similar to being trapped forever in a Tim Burton film. Much to public outrage, Sea World decided to use Tilikum in its shows again, they claim, for his ‘mental well-being’.
But what alternative could have been offered? Is it worth releasing an endangered animal for what some scientists believe to be a ‘death sentence’?
The initial problem with rehabilitation is that it is not as simple as it sounds. Even the case heralded as a great success, the release of Free Willy star Keiko the killer whale, was not without its complications, as Keiko failed to flourish in the wild. He rarely interacted with other orcas and struggled to learn how to hunt. Eventually, despite the efforts of his trainers, he could not break his need for human contact, and kept following or returning to the trainers’ boat.
Is it better, then, to subject a wild animal to a life, through no fault of their own, behind bars and on display? Or should we have interfered with nature in the first place to save the creature? Would it be kinder to let natural selection run its course? There is no easy answer to this conundrum.
Some argue that a captive animal should be used for the purpose of education and science. Yet is this behavioural research redundant as a creature is sure to act differently when in captivity as opposed to in its natural habitat? And if this is the case, do we want to see a reflection of a wild animal, taught or forced to alter its behaviour? Like a dolphin instructed to kiss for our entertainment when its natural instincts say that face to face contact signals aggression. The most revolutionary behavioural research of course comes from observing an animal in the wild, and personally, I would rather see an animal through a screen, happy in their habitat, than through bars, distressed and depressed. Others fear that if we do not keep zoos we will lose rapidly disappearing creatures altogether. A point reinforced by the fact that there are more tigers in captivity in the US than in the wild in the whole of Asia.
As a child I recall telling my mum adamantly that when I grew up I was going to get a license and keep a panther. I was a child and children say ill thought out, naive things. However, using wild animals for human gratification has become out of control in America. This is due to slack laws allowing private zoos, which grant any Tom, Dick or Harry the opportunity to counteract their small man syndrome by purchasing a tiger or filling their child shaped void with a monkey. The most famous example being TV chimp star Travis who bit off its owner’s neighbour’s face.
More recently, police in Ohio were forced to shoot and kill dozens of exotic animals that escaped from a private zoo after their owner opened all the cages and shot himself. Amongst the 56 animals were grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, tigers and lions. It seems to me that some have forgotten it took years and years of domestication to turn wolves into dogs and wild cats into kitties; and even now we hear of untrained dogs killing children, weekly. Thus, it is absurd to think that you can cuddle a killer whale and not be at risk. As David Attenborough clearly depicts in Frozen Planet, orcas are clever predators that take joy from taunting seals before devouring them. It is their natural instinct to kill (a clue is in the name).
In the UK, however, the story is slightly different. We impose stricter laws on keeping exotic pets and the recent ban of wild animals in the circus was a genuine animal welfare victory. But, if we continue to go in this ‘right’ direction, what should now be done with the animals already in captivity? I say, unless they are domesticated beyond regression, release them. Even if there’s possibility they won’t survive, that’s better than spending an existence in an unnatural amusement park surrounded by bars, restaurants and shops, slowly going insane, like us humans are doing.