Sunday, August 3, 2014

When the Ego of Activism Trumps Animal Welfare

I don't enjoy getting political.  Not one bit!!  Why?  It's not that I don't stand for something.  Nor do I feel everyone everywhere is right about everything.  Maybe some of it is my hippie/yoga/treehugger world view, but for the most part, I just don't think picking a side is practical.  Extreme sides of anything accomplish nothing.  But even my patience gets tested, and this is one of those times.

No, it's gone!

I saw Blackfish. I've read countless op-eds on either side of the issues.  I read about what's happening at National Aquarium.  I've fielded a decent amount of love and hate mail about what I do and what this zoological field represents.  And for the most part (save this), I try to keep an open mind.  Before you jump to conclusions, know that I am very passionate about my job and what it represents, not to mention the individual animals I have come to know and love.  But all the same, I like to understand all sides of a controversial topic.

But when I read about what happened in regards to Vancouver Aquarium's breeding program, that moved me to action.  Not just about this particular decision, but about the movement to "empty the tanks."

Look, I really don't feel that everyone needs to have the same opinion as me in terms of zoological facilities.  Some people will never agree with having animals in zoos or aquariums.  It is a futile and pointless effort to try to convince everyone to have the same opinion on this topic.   However, I sometimes get the sense that if you admit this - that you can't change everyone's minds to align with your own- that that in some way diminishes the power or validity of your opinion.  

Guess what, it doesn't.

The only issue here that really matters is the welfare of the animals.  I mean that not just collectively, like you know, Animals Everywhere.  I also mean the individual animals who live at the facilities in question.  And when it comes down to it, extremism does not take into consideration these individuals (and rarely does it take a realistic look at a collective future big-picture concept).

Each animal is a unique individual; and that deserves careful consideration

You know what the most beautiful thing is about simplifying our issue and truly making it about the animals?  The fact that you can have differing opinions and STILL actually benefit the animals...and not your ego.

What exactly does the vote to ban Vancouver Aquarium from breeding their cetaceans accomplish?  If the answer is something along the lines of "It's The First Step Towards Phasing Out Marine Mammals In Human Care", then it's about the ego.  The end.

In the case of the Vancouver Aquarium, the people making this decision are essentially human beings who make decisions about the land the aquarium is on.  Yes, you read that right.  Not a team of veterinarians, ethologists specializing in cetology, or keepers/trainers, but the Vancouver Park Board.  They made a decision after hearing a bunch of alleged "experts" advocate against cetaceans in human care who have no experience or modern knowledge of how the species housed at Vancouver Aquarium do.  Many of the people they listened to, including Jane Goodall, are renowned experts in their field, but not in this particular one.  But for some reason, the opinions of people who have knowledge in related (or completely unrelated) fields are more highly regarded by the laymen than people who have actual experience with those animals.  And what's most upsetting is many of these people have their facts completely wrong.

Wrong! But people look at this graphic and assume it's honest and true, so this is what they believe...a GRAPHIC WITH TEXT

So what I've decided is that I'm going to use my zoology degree and years of marine mammal care/training experience to make comments on how elephants are kept in zoos.  I mean, I work with large social mammals (and most of them are gray, just like elephants), so it's exactly the same.  I should be able to use my knowledge of bottlenose dolphin behavior to understand elephants without having to go through the hassle of actually talking to people who work with elephants for a living.  

In addition to that, I'm going to start making some serious changes to the Florida Board of Education, because like, I personally experienced  school so I know all about it and can make policy changes.  Also, my sister is a teacher, so like, I pretty much am an expert.  I might even go the extra mile and get a box of crayons and draw on a poster board and stand outside an Important Building during an Important Meeting, and yell some quippy phrase just so they know I'm serious.

What? What's that you say, experts in education?  I don't know what I'm talking about? Whatever, here is my rational explanation to defend my beliefs: Nothing you say is valid because you're lying! You're on the side of evil! Your expertise means nothing because it is inconvenient to me and also I am a fervent believer in conspiracy theories involving experts all being liars and the laymen being the real expert.  In fact, my deep knowledge of how to use Web MD makes me even more knowledgable about my health than a physician, I read a Tom Clancy book and now know about Russian spies, and I've basically seen every Law and Order SVU episode so I know how to convict, arrest, and interrogate criminals.

They taught me all I know.


Enough of that tangent.

Shutting down zoos and aquariums does. not. help. animals.  Improving, revamping, or closing zoos and aquariums who do not treat their animals well helps the animals.  But who judges when a zoo ought to be closed?  Not people sitting on their couch watching Netflix.  Not people who have advanced degrees in biochemistry, or have an Oscar.   People who have decades of experience working in a zoological facility directly with the animals, be it veterinarians, keepers, trainers, and researchers.   Public opinion is important to an extent; sometimes they can be great watchdogs.  Sometimes they can be blinded (albeit caring) people who yell and scream because they feel they're doing the right thing, but wind up placing the animals in harm's way.

What do I mean by that?  


Well, I'm not saying that all zoos and aquariums in the world do a good or even mediocre job at caring for their animals.  I'm also not saying that the places who do a decent to fantastic job are impervious to constructive feedback and improvements.  If a place is really not caring for their animals, then action is needed.   But the action has to come from a team of experts, because they are the only ones who can assess a situation and decide what is in the animals' best interest because guess what? The animals can't decide that.

Think that's only the case for animals in human care?  No.  In the vast majority of cases, humans decide the fate of the animals with whom they "share" their space.  Coyotes are being shot in suburban areas because people are afraid they'll eat their dogs.  Elephants in central Africa are being killed not only by poachers and hunters, but in culls on wild game preserves (essentially the only "wild" habitat left for African elephants).  Dolphins of various species in many parts of the world (not just Japan, people!) are being slaughtered as a form of pest control, for rites of passage, and for crab bait.  Millions of domesticated animals are tortured, forgotten about, and killed.  We decided that humans are the only method of controlling white-tailed deer populations in the U.S. (oh, because we killed off their main macro predator* who used to do that job for us), so we collectively decide the fate of the lives of animals who have just as much charisma and intelligence as a sea lion.  Make your own conclusions about how "good" or "bad" these things are; the point is, humans manipulate the lives of animals in the wild.  Animals don't usually have a say in the matter.

 This wild buck's future is determined by what a human being decides.

Also, when people who do not care about or understand animals make decisions about them, really bad things happen.  Even if you disagree with the "necessity" of zoos and aquariums for educational purposes, you have to understand that to the animals in zoos and aquariums (and I'll just speak for the ones in the U.S. since that's where I live and what I know best), that is their HOME.  It is IRRELEVANT if you think it's wrong, or that the wild is "better", or that you feel bad they are in a zoo.  That's how YOU feel.  That's how YOU see things.

"How can a dolphin ever be happy in a tank?"

Uh, I don't know how to answer that.  Not because I have an agenda, but because for whatever reason, that dolphin knows that pool as her home.  She knows the animals living with her as her family members and friends.  She knows the routine of the day, she knows the trainers and how to manipulate them (teehee).  She engages in normal dolphin social and breeding behavior.  She is healthy medically and exhibits no stereotypic behavior.  She lives well past her average life expectancy.  

The question I think is more important to ask is, "How is that dolphin doing?" and we can be open to the answer of, "She's really thriving, and it doesn't matter if that makes sense to me" or "you know what? We can do better for her."

Sea lions in zoos live over 10 years longer than they usually do in the wild

And again, realize that you can still believe that dolphins should not be in aquariums.  But do not use the "they are suffering, so let's focus our efforts on getting them out of zoos" as the explanation.  

Phasing out dolphins from aquariums just because it makes us think we "did good" literally only strokes our ego.  Specifically looking at marine mammals: How does that make other people who don't care about animals care about them?  How does that raise funds for rehabilitation centers who focus on rescue, rehab and release?  How does that reduce pollution in our oceans?  Or increase awareness for boaters?

Stopping a breeding program at Vancouver Aquarium means their animals will have to be separated or on birth control.  There is no Abstinence Program I'm aware of that works on cetaceans, nor can any of the Vancouver Park Board members sit down with each beluga, Pacific white-sided dolphin and harbor porpoise and say, "Look, we have to have a talk.  Don't get pregnant or knock anyone up, because it's just not in your best interest.  Plus, we don't want those people with clever poster boards to be mad at us, and we like the publicity we're getting."

So the animals natural life cycles have to be put on hold.  Sometimes in the zoo world, this is necessary for the health of the individual animal.  For example, if you have a brother and sister living together and there is no current option for housing them apart, then one of them will go on birth control.  That is, for the time being, what's in their best interest.  But let's also not forget that in-breeding does occur in the wild, and contrary to human cultural beliefs, in-breeding does not automatically make poor progeny.  In fact, it can in some cases have some very beneficial outcomes.  It can also, as we know, increase the prominence of recessive sex-linked traits (like hemophilia in some of the European royal families back in the day).  But it is not GOOD or BAD.  We prevent it in zoos and aquariums to maintain genetic diversity, but if an inbred baby occurs this doesn't mean the baby has problems (in fact, most of the time he or she is just fine).  Need I mention that most of your domestic dogs and cats are from a loooooooong line of inbreeding?  Okay, now I'm really off track.

Don't I always

Let's look at the case of the two rescued, unreleasable harbor porpoises at Vancouver Aquarium.  It's very easy for the Vancouver Park Board to say, "Don't breed cetaceans anymore", wipe their hands clean of the issue and enjoy the praise from the loud minority of so-called animal rights activists.  

But what do the two harbor porpoises, Jack and Daisy do?  

Jack and Daisy

Separating them would be extremely cruel; they are social animals. They cannot be sent to another facility reasonably close because there are no other harbor porpoises in human care at any other place on the continent of North America.  They are unreleasable animals, so going back to the ocean is not an option.  Does that then mean for the rest of her life, the female porpoise will have to go on birth control?  Does anyone out there with a shred of knowledge about biology seriously think it's a good idea for any animal to be on hormonal treatments for a non-life threatening medical issue for their ENTIRE LIFE?  

What happens if a pregnancy does happen?  No birth control is 100% effective.  What happens then? Who gets to decide?


The kicker of this decision was the audacity the Vancouver Park Board had to say that they basically encourage the trainers and caregivers at Vancouver Aquarium to consider alternative methods of educating the masses about cetaceans without having them at the aquarium....uh, okay? Yes, in addition to: caring for their resident animals which is a full time job, caring for a rescued pseudorca calf 24/7, and reeling from a decision made by complete laymen about the care of the animals, they now need to try to fit into YOUR agenda while you spend approximately 0% effort in understanding what the aquarium provides to the general public, the animals, and the tremendous amount of research they do?  Oh, almighty and wise Board Members, how lucky we are that you can Bestow Your Wisdom Unto Us!

Vancouver Aquarium is amazing!

Why is it that the people on the ground floor of caring for animals, the trainers, keepers and veterinarians (and in some places, researchers), not only have to worry about making sure their animals get the best quality of life, but that now they have to fight off the absolutely obnoxious, totally misled detractors who make uneducated and destructive decisions about animals they know comparatively nothing about?

Right on

Phasing out cetaceans in zoos sounds like, to an activist, the Holy Grail of saving the animals.  I understand that, because it seems like you're taking prisoners out of jail and releasing them to their families, where they can reunite with them and live "free".  I'm not saying that sarcastically, I totally understand what they're saying.  I know the argument that no matter how much we trainers/caretakers love the animals, it doesn't change the fact that they are in a zoo or aquarium.  

But let me ask you this, what exactly is the end game here?  Sure, you could go back in a time machine and change the past so that having cetaceans in human care never happened.  We could go into hypotheticals about how that would play out for animals like, oh, the orcas in the 1950s***, but that's not very productive.  Unless one of you knows how to time travel, we only have the facts:

1) There are zoos and aquariums

2) There are really amazing zoos and aquariums with animals who are thriving

3) Many of the cetaceans in zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and Canada were born there, or are unreleasable rescues

4) The animals who were collected from the wild have been in human care for decades

5) There has been no successful release of a captive-born cetacean into the wild, nor has there been a successful release of a cetacean who has spent decades in an aquarium

6) There are wild cetaceans suffering from pollution, drive slaughters, psychotic humans (remember the dolphin who was stabbed with a screw driver?!), irresponsible boating and whale-watching, and illnesses related to pollution (e.g. antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, horrible red tides made exponentially worse by fertilizer runoff, etc.)

7) Zoos and aquariums expose more people (MILLIONS of them) to animals they would never see or care about

Those facts cannot be ignored when making decisions that impact directly the individual lives of animals.  It's okay if you don't agree that they should've "ever" been in an aquarium in the first place. But that doesn't change the fact that those animals know that as home, that they do not know how to hunt for their own food, that their families and friends surround them.  Focusing all of your effort on releasing them to the wild or to a "sanctuary" is pointless and ultimately cruel to those animals specifically.  Going the further step of saying, "Okay, you know what? Fine, let them be in what is familiar to them.  But we aren't going to allow breeding, THAT'LL change the fate of Animals Everywhere!" is just as naive....and it ruins animal lives.

Don't ruin their lives!

How about all of this policy making and fundraising go towards supporting marine mammal rescue centers?  Or opening new ones?  Those things take a TON of money to operate and maintain, but they serve such a critical purpose.  University of New England had to close their marine mammal rehab program due to lack of funding.  That means there is one less facility to rescue, rehab, and release countless harbor and gray seals, porpoises, dolphins, and help entangled whales.  

Did you know that in many cetacean strandings, the common decision is to euthanize the animals, even if they are healthy?  That might seem barbaric, but it's necessary simply due to the fact that there are not enough resources to move 50 long-beaked common dolphins to rehabilitation pools that are set up for triage, much less long term care.

Where are all the animal rights activists who are spending hours on the internet trolling aquarium Facebook pages and flaming them and pressuring spineless board members and CEOs to Free The Whales (or Don't Let Them Breed) when you need them to fundraise to build a facility to respond to stranded cetaceans?  Is anyone going to stand up and actually try to make a difference, or do they just want to focus on something that isn't an actual problem, but boy does it make a great documentary?

I think that both sides of this argument need to sit down and listen to each other.  The activists could really do well to actually listen to experts in the field without automatically writing them off simply because they have a different opinion.  They could also admit that it doesn't do anything positive to "release" the animals in human care...because that is not what's in the best interest of those particular animals.  The animal trainers could do well to be more transparent about their jobs so it doesn't look like they have something to hide (which we don't).   But both sides need to take a deep breath and go, "Wait a second, we both stand for the same thing."  

Can you imagine how much we'd accomplish if both sides realized there's no point to having "sides"?  Think of the monetary support, the emotional support, and the educational outreach we could achieve if, for example, we set aside our "are zoos good?" fight and said, "Well, we agree rehabilitation facilities are necessary!" or "Beach clean-ups are a must!" and put our efforts, passion, and money there.  Those are things we can actually do that positively impact countless animals.

The extremists will always exist, and we can't control that.  They can just run their mouths and we can be thankful we aren't off the deep end.  Opinions will always differ, and that's necessary for growth and positive change.  But the line must be drawn when decisions are made which directly affect the quality of life of animals who feel, think, and deserve more respect than that.  

* Macro predators are large animals, like wolves, coyotes, bobcats, and space aliens.  Micro predators are things commonly related to disease, like bacteria, viruses, and U.S. Congress.**

** Whoops, guess I went political again.

*** In the Pacific Northwest of U.S. and Canada, the Navy of both countries mounted machine guns to take out passing pods of orcas because they were believed to be vicious predators.  We did it to the wolves, why not orcas?  And the way the straits are in the Pacific Northwest, shooting orcas  would've been like shooting ducks in a barrel.


  1. Enjoyed reading this. Thank you for supporting our Vancouver Aquarium!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marcus! I'm rooting for you guys

  2. Alisha Chromey What do think the aquarium should do for Jack and Daisy if the Park Board stands by their decision?

  3. Thank you for this excellent post! I wrote something similar on a blog that I write on with some friends, although yours went into much more depth than mine on the issue of animals in captivity. I believe my blog post is attached to my URL, if you are at all interested in reading it. Thank you again! It's wonderful to hear someone reasonable in this very hot issue.

  4. Loved this. My fiance is a trainer at the Aquarium and this is most eloquent, honest, funny, and important commentary I have read regarding the current affairs at the Aquarium. I was blown away by how accessable your writing is to the laymen such as myself. I wish there was a way to expose this blog to more Vancouverites, as not only because you perfectly highlight how dangerous this motion is to the animals but also you provide inspiring examples of how that energy could better be put to use. I hope you consider submitting this as an op-ed to news sources such as The Vancouver Sun, Vancity Buzz, and The Providence. I think it could do a lot of good. In any case, I look forward to your post next Sunday.

    1. My name is Chris, by the way. Don't know why my signature came out as a bunch of numbers.

  5. Thank you for an amazing, thoughtful, informative post. Let's hope that Vancouver Park Board members read it too!

  6. You go girl. Maybe more people need to see the movie about the animals all going crazy due to the pollution we have put into the environment. If we keep turning our back on them this may become a reality.

  7. Thank you, thank you for such a wonderful post! You've said mostly whats been rattling around in my brain for months. And I could not agree more about activists using their time and money towards real causes and helping the wild animals that face true problems that we have caused!

  8. Well said Cat! Couldn't agree more.

  9. Thank you for such a well written and thought out article. I don't feel the need to argue with activists who KNOW how much better it is to release the animals so...I will be linking to this for all those activists who feel the need to argue on twitter with me because I support SeaWorld.

    They are entitled to their opinions I just don't need it shoved down my throat.

  10. Hi! Thank you for your well written article. I am a marine mammal trainer at SeaWorld and I can't thank you enough for giving a voice to those in the animal care field including trainers and veterinarians.

  11. Your post is excellent and absolutely spot on! Thank you for the courage to stand up and say these things. And thank you for all that you do for marine life! I volunteer in animal rescue, with cats mostly, and the things you point out here, can be applied to so many levels of animal research, rescue, and rehab, if people would only act and react with an educated response instead of one that is highly emotional.

  12. Always love your blog! You are always spot on with how I feel about things, but so much more eloquent! This is just fantastic. It would be so great if the activists could just take a step back and see that people who work with animals actually do genuinely love them.

  13. Always love your blog! You are always spot on with how I feel about things, but so much more eloquent! This is just fantastic. It would be so great if the activists could just take a step back and see that people who work with animals actually do genuinely love them.

  14. This is a great article the public really needs to read your blog especially people who been brainwashed by Blackfish and The Cove.

    (I regret signing petitions to not buy tickets to marine aquariums now)

    oh and greetings from New Zealand.

  15. Hi Cat!

    I really enjoy reading your articles!

    I'm writing an essay about this topic and am wondering if you would allow me to use some of what you've written? I will give you all of the credit where it is due, obviously.

    More people need to hear and understand all of what it really means to "empty the tanks"


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