Wednesday, March 3, 2010
You probably heard about the killer whale at Sea World in Orlando that killed its trainer. The incident prompted a flurry of discussion about whales, whale shows and right vs. wrong.
Larry King hosted a panel discussion two nights ago in which supporters of whale shows like those at Sea World argued that the shows educate Americans about sea life. Zoos and aquariums, the supporters argued, are valuable scientific and educational assets.
The opposing view was that whale and dolphin shows exploit creatures and cruelly force them to live and perform in tiny tanks much smaller than the hundreds of miles they would typically range living in the open ocean. While the Sea World folks say they use positive reinforcement as their primary training technique, the whale supporters argue that it's merely food deprivation.
I read an article years ago that characterized attempts to free captive animals as misguided at best. The article alleged that animals primarily want their basic needs met -- food, water, shelter -- and once that's done, they're content to live in routine. In fact, they like routine, and prefer it to the haphazard dangers of the wild, the article argued.
It's an interesting debate, but I come down firmly on the side of non-performing whales. (No surprise there.) I agree that zoos and aquariums are valuable. They do provide a critical educational and scientific role, and they help rehabilitate injured animals and breed those that are threatened or endangered.
But a zoo or aquarium is not equivalent to a whale show. Equating the two is like saying we should hold human freak shows because hospitals are worthwhile. There's a difference between caring for animals and performing research, and training whales and dolphins to jump through hoops.
Whale and dolphin shows are relics of the past. (So are animal acts in circuses, for that matter.) We now live in a society where people can see exotic animals in more suitable surroundings -- even go whale-watching and see them in the open ocean. (For nearly the same price as a bunch of Sea World tickets, I would bet!)
I think it's acceptable to house and display whales and dolphins, those born in captivity or injured in ways that prevent their release into the wild. But jumping through hoops? Forget it. There's no good reason for that.
(Photo: Catherine Street, last week.)