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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Free Willy? It's Not That Simple.

So the whole 'educated' part of the title of my blog refers to my Master's Degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation (still in progress, of course). I reiterate this because I want to, for the first time, emphasize the conservation aspect of my studies. While my main focus is behavior, it's important to understand the relevance of conservation because there are so many species on this earth today that we may never be able to study, thanks to the disturbing rates of extinction. I bring this up in response to the recent ordeal at SeaWorld involving the death of an experienced trainer. There are varying depictions of the scene, but the general idea is that she was killed by Tillikum, a massive bull Orca, after a show. Responses to this event have been varied as well, and I've seen a lot of comments saying that zoos and aquariums are cruel and ought to be closed. Comments along the lines of 'wild animals are wild' and whatnot. While I don't necessarily disagree entirely, I would like to speak out in defense of these incredibly important establishments.

The last course I took for my degree was also my favorite, entitled Applied Animal Behaviour (my professor was British...) and Welfare, and the main focus of this course was the study of animal welfare in the captive environment. We learned appropriate methods of determining welfare in various environments, including farms, zoos and the average household, as well as methods of improving welfare in these places. While it may be hard to think about the mighty rhinoceros or the majestic elephant pacing in an enclosure for lack of stimulation, it's also critical to remember the status of these animals in the wild. Thanks to human overpopulation and the ravaging of natural resources in the habitats of many wild animals, the only chance we have of preserving some species is by maintaining breeding stock in zoos and aquariums with the eventual hope for reintroduction into the wild. It has worked with species such as the California Condor and the Black Footed Ferret, and we hope it will help save dwindling populations such as tigers and red wolves.

When it comes to animals of the sea, there is a multitude of issues to consider when keeping them in captivity. First and foremost, sea mammals are, for the most part, quite large. When you live in an environment as big as the ocean, you have room to grow. Orcas (killer whales) can grow up to 32 feet in length, and weigh in at up to 6 tons. This is a serious issue when you consider how little space these giant creatures are given when in captivity. Simply put, we don't have enough space on land to comfortably accommodate these giant sea mammals. Does this mean we shouldn't keep them in captivity? That's a tough question to answer for me. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists Orcas as 'Data Deficient' in terms of their conservation status. This means that, though the large dolphins (yes, they are technically dolphins) are extensively studied, scientists are unsure how many 'subspecies' of Orca their are, so it is impossible to assign a level of threat. They do know, however, that the depletion of prey and the level of pollutants in the sea could potentially cause up to a 30% reduction over 3 generations. Whether this means that Orcas wont survive without us keeping a captive breeding population remains to be seen.

My point, through all of this rambling, is as follows. When tragedies such as this happen, the public is quick to blame zoos and aquariums for inhumane treatment, or insufficient care of their wild animals. And while it is fair to say that these are wild animals and should be treated as such, it is not fair to call for the elimination of these institutions. Without them, so many species would no longer exist on this planet. Instead of blaming the programs that work tirelessly to preserve species that we, as humans, have caused to decline, we should blame the lack of funding that prevents these facilities from reaching their true potential. Some zoos, such as the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., do not charge admission, and require donations and memberships to survive. I grew up going to the National Zoo, and I can't imagine life without it. The funds don't just go to support the physical zoo itself, they go toward research projects and missions aimed at conservation. I'm not saying you should become a member, or even donate. I'm simply saying that if money we spent on unnecessary war or wasted in inefficient healthcare systems was redirected towards zoos and aquariums, the animals could live the way they were meant to, and contribute to the conservation of their species in the most humane and natural way possible. Maybe that way, parks like SeaWorld wouldn't have to make money by making giant, majestic Killer Whales jump through hoops for hoards of screaming children.

For an EXCELLENT read about conservation, I recommend 100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth's Most Endangered Species by Jeff Corwin. I saw him speak about it (and met him... swoon) and it's incredibly moving and oh so important.


  1. It's so sad about the SeaWorld killing :( I cried yesterday when I read an article about it.

    But great points about conservation and its necessity, Lisa!

  2. thanks Danielle! it really is upsetting when we clash with nature like that.