*note: for readers who didn’t grow up in Ontario, Marineland is a Canadian marine mammal ‘entertainment’ facility, similar to Seaworld or any other large facility. Marineland currently holds many marine mammals, including dolphins, walruses, sea lions and orca whales.*
On behalf of my 8 year old self, let me start by saying thanks. Thanks for profiting off my genuine admiration for, and fascination with, marine mammals. Thanks for happily leading me to believe that experiencing these animals in captivity was some sort of honourable educational pursuit, a pursuit which kick-started my first official career path: marine biology. At the age of 8, I told my Uncle Steve I would be the person to discover (definitively) why whales breach. I pursued this calling tenaciously, raising over $500 on the school playground in a couple of months, even going so far as to arrange payment plans for my peers based on their weekly allowance. All proceeds were to be donated to Greenpeace for their whale-saving campaigns. I had a clipboard, a posse of collectors and everything. Anything to save the whales.
Marineland, I was too young to understand how wrong it is to not only keep these animals in captivity, but to make money off their enslavement. I saw myself as an amateur scientist, someone who wanted to be up close and personal with the individual animals I so adored. It didn’t help that in the 4th grade, a classmate of mine was presenting on orca whales and made a claim about them eating seals. My teacher interrupted him, turned to me, and said, “Is that true?” I was the local authority on all things cetacean. I was “Whale-girl”. I fell asleep to the sounds of the humpbacks, I knew all their names in latin. But had I known then what I know now, my heart would surely have broken.
I’ve dealt with the guilt of being a kid who adored marine-parks, though my family didn’t have the money to go more than once in my entire childhood. I loved those memories so much that I kept framed photos of the dolphins and whales I saw that one day around my bedroom for years. I made stories up about them. I daydreamt about the zany adventures they got up to. I was– I confess– even one of those kids who knew every word to those nauseating ‘everyone-loves-Marineland’ commercials. That adoration came from a pure place in me, and the profiteering spirit of Marineland and facilities likes it, made a killing off scores of children just like me.
A study in 1999 found that the majority of Americans are opposed to the captive display of marine mammals when there were “no demonstrated educational and scientific benefits” (Bekoff, 94). While Marineland, and facilities like it, may be quick to argue that one does in fact provide educational benefits, it should be noted that the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have stated in their own literature that “little to no systematic research has been conducted on the impact of visits to zoos and aquariums on visitor conservation knowledge, awareness, affect, or behaviour” (Ibid).
But Marineland, I must confess: I actually think you are an educational place. An extremely educational place. You can learn a lot by looking at your model. In the name of that same scientific tenacity I possessed as a child, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling what I believe to be some of the most important educational lessons that Marineland and facilities like it, can offer:
Fact One: Marine parks are businesses. I know, weird, eh? With all that talk about caring for animals and providing them with food, shelter and high quality veterinary care, you’d think they were a non-profit organization simply doing their best to protect the animals who have (through no fault of their own), ended up in their care. And you’d be wrong. Their primary focus is to make money, not to consider the ethical dilemma of keeping other animals in captivity, let alone the rights and needs of the individual animals being held by them.
Fact Two: All that rhetoric about encouraging ‘conservation’ is actually described by advocates as the ‘conservation fallacy’, because the industry claims that human beings anecdotally “benefit” from seeing animals in captivity, and that this benefit somehow magically translates into greater protection of that species in the wild. The truly educational part of this, is that this somehow appears to justify any suffering endured by the individual animals held in captivity who become forced ‘representatives’ for the ‘benefit’ of their species.
Fact Three: Captured marine mammals face up to a six-fold increase in mortality in the first month or two after capture, a consequence of the unnecessary stress they endure (Rose, 2004).
Fact Four: Animals in captivity frequently engage in behaviours associated with massive trauma, including: self-injury, eating disorders, infanticide, suicide, hyper-aggression, and depression (Marino et al., 2009). These heartbreaking behaviours are a response to human-inflicted trauma and enslavement. It’s strange though because I don’t think the trainers mention this during their performance…
Fact Five: Given that there are no predators, food shortages, by-catch, pollution or other natural hazards in artificial environments– why is the overall survivorship of captive dolphins the same (and sometimes less than) dolphins who live in the wild? (Rose, 2004) And why do studies focused on orcas conclude that their mortality rates in captivity are consistently three times higher than those living freely in well-documented parts of the Pacific? (Ibid)
Fact Six: Captive animals usually don’t have privacy from the public and therefore cannot control when and where they’d like to rest. Imagine that a group of people blindfolded you and stole you from your home. You were brought to a strange environment, where you are held against your will, and there are windows on each side of you. On the other side of those windows are ever-present crowds of obnoxious onlookers peeking in (and banging on) your windows while you are simply trying to relax as much as is possible in such an unnatural environment. This is the life of a captive marine mammal (as well as any captive wild animal).
Fact Seven: Because the social and physical lives of captive individuals are so dramatically altered from what would happen in the wild, many scientists are legitimately asking whether more accurate information about these animals could be obtained through observing them in the wild. This debunks another major myth about animals in captivity being useful for research on the species.
The best lesson Marineland (and facilities like it) can teach us is that animals do not want to be treated this way and that it is wrong to do so. However, this will be infinitely kept from the proverbial ‘lesson plan’ of these facilities and it is up to us to advocate on behalf of the individual animals within them.
Enter Marineland Animal Defense (MAD), an inspiring and steadfast group of citizens committed to ending animal captivity at Marineland. Their goals are four-fold: to end breeding programs at Marineland; to end plans for expansion of captivity; to re-home captive animals to sanctuaries; and to hold Marineland accountable for various abuses (human and non human).
Their regular demonstrations are textbook success stories of outreach, having handed out thousands of pieces of literature to well-intentioned individuals who simply want to do what my parents did for me. This success is despite the absurd lengths Marineland has gone to prevent potential attendants from exercising sound judgment. MAD is a wonderful model for other communities who share space with marine profiteers. While I have not yet had the honour of standing alongside them, I plan to in the future.
I think of 8 year old me, wanting nothing more than to end the practice of harming animals. Sure, it seemed a wee bit lofty, but I thought if I applied myself hard enough it could be accomplished in time for Saturday morning cartoons. Flash forward to now. I feel the full weight of that objective, mostly because I understand the scale and institutionalized, normalized nature of what we do to other animals. But some things never change, and that includes animal liberation being my heart’s own true desire. It may have started with whales (it’s often the charismatic megafauna that ignite us), but it didn’t end there. I hope it won’t end there with you either.