Aquarium Ethics

03.17.18

There is a long running debate about whether keeping animals in captivity is ethical or not. PETA and similar organisations argue aggressively against animal cruelty, while others think places like Seaworld are worth the entertainment value, and the treatment of the animals there is relatively inconsequential. One controversial account regarding the death of an orca trainer in the pool, brought light to this issue. The film Blackfish sparked an outrage, leading to the big question: what really happened? The film was acclaimed by many, but Seaworld doesn’t seem to agree that it tells the true story.

Blackfish claims that young orcas were taken from their mothers in a massive ocean collection, and brought to Seaworld where they were trained using abusive measures. The film maintains that these traumatic experiences caused insanity in the featured orca, leading him to attack and kill his trainer. People are quick to disregard the suffering of animals under the belief that they aren’t as smart as humans are. Studies have shown that many whales are nearly as intelligent as humans, so they can likely feel the same sort of emotional pain that a child would when separated from its parents. Seaworld, in it’s rather defensive statement, said that their organisation did not collect the young whales from the wild, and had not done so for 40 years. However, they did not expressly state that their orcas had not been collected from the wild and forced into captivity. This provides a possibility for a half-truth on the part of Seaworld. It is a distinct possibility that they do throw some of their business practices under the rug in favour of making money. Since capitalism is so prevalent in today’s society, many companies work within the systems of each other without regard for the humans and animals affected by them.

To confirm the truth, an unbiased external party would need to ensure Seaworld is sticking to their alleged values. The people bashing their business practices may have a point, but it is easy to get fired up and lose sight of what is realistic. That being said, I disagree with the premise behind keeping large intelligent animals in captivity, unless they are being rehabilitated or could not survive in the wild. In an ideal world, humans would make an effort to go to the animals rather than bringing the animals to us. This would provide a more extensive learning opportunity, and would be less disruptive to natural ecosystems overall. It seems as though the biggest difference between Seaworld and other aquariums is that many other aquariums are already doing this kind of work, and Seaworld is simply continuing its venture to take the animal instincts out of wild animals. This a misguided and potentially impossible task. The Seattle aquarium employs people to offer information about ecology on many nearby beaches, rather than simply offering the information inside its walls. It also plays a part in conservation ventures. In contrast, Seaworld is mainly entertainment based, rather than education or outreach. Whether this will continue to be a sustainable business model in this day and age, remains to be seen.

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