Sunday, January 31, 2016

Moving and Migrating, The Key To Happiness?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about things the past couple of days.  That’s what happens when you’re in a car for a really long period of time with a sleeping baby in the back seat.   I thought about Atlanta traffic, which I was able to experience in all its Friday night glory, and concluded that it is undoubtedly a scourge sent to us from some ancient supernatural force that suffers all mortals without discrimination. 

I should've just rapped about it.

I also had some time to think about moving and what that does to a person.  I mean, it’s stressful right? It complete upends the most basic sense of security; your physical home and social network.  It really messes with your mind. Like I only ate one donut from my favorite donut place, because I was so high-strung.  But then I realized that's just how I react to this major life event*.  Some people live for that kind of change.  What is it about moving that makes so many of us stressed out, and others feel recharged and excited?

I’m no anthropologist, nor am I a philosopher.  But it makes me think about some of the things we as animal lovers talk about when we talk about animals.  One of the main arguments made against having animals in zoos or aquariums has to do with the amount of space they have in human care versus what they would theoretically have in the wild.  In my experience, the question usually revolves around bottlenose dolphins and if they have to swim hundreds of miles a day to thrive.

(Let me also just say that there absolutely ARE animal species whose life depends on the ability to move large distances.  This is just about bottlenose dolphins. )

Like anything, there are no solid answers to general questions.  As a field, we collectively strive to provide the best care for our animal family members, which means signing up for a constant evolution and admitting that there will always be necessary change we have to answer to in practice, not just in theory.  But when we start to debate the need for animals in general to move around, both sides of the argument tend to work in sweeping statements (always coming from a place of compassion, of course).

I may not be a philosopher, but I appreciate a deep thought when I see one.

So often, I’ve heard myself answering a tough question about “is this enough space for a dolphin to swim in?” with some comparison to myself. I mean this as a show of sincere sign of connection to the animals as individuals and to their well-being.  That might be a flaw of mine; I tend to assume that the person asking me the question already thinks I’m a jerk for being a marine mammal trainer.  I know that’s an unfair assumption to make, because there are people who just ask because they are curious. But I’m sensitive to those kinds of questions…not because they aren’t valid ones to ask, but because I never know if we’re talking about the topic at hand, or if it’s going to turn into some mudslinging session.

Right, so when I’m asked about if dolphins have enough space considering the vastness of their natural habitat, I usually talk about how coastal bottlenose dolphins tend to stay wherever the food is; they only travel large distances if they have to.  Otherwise, they seem to prefer to stay within a home range.  And then I compare that to myself, saying if there’s deep dish pizza in my neighborhood, you can pretty much bet I’ll stay in one spot.

Homing beacon activated

I’ve heard other answers, like it doesn’t really “matter” how much space the animals have, as long as they are well taken care of.   I’ve heard things like, “there is no research to support that they need a certain amount of space”. 

Those are answers in response to questions or statements like, “dolphins normally travel hundreds or thousands of miles a day, and now they swim in endless tiny loops” and “how can they be happy in this small tank?”

Well this is just a huge mess

Some of you might be nodding your heads in agreement, while others of you are bristling.  This is one of those classic Us Against Them scenarios.  But does it have to be that way?

I was thinking on the first long leg of my moving journey about what it means to be an animal who tends to seek out a territory and set down roots.  We get jobs, we rent or buy a house, we start families (including our non-human babies!), and get involved with our community to varying degrees.  We travel to select places, usually to meet some core need.  For me, that was: work and burritos (I had the deep dish pizza delivered).  And sometimes, we travel for pleasure, only to come right back to our cozy 900 square foot homes.

Do people with giant estates, or the ability to travel a lot more, have better lives than those of us living in small places who basically stay within a 10 mile radius?  In general, no.  It’s just different.  

OVER DONE John Fogarty! For serious.

But that’s not really the whole story to how humans as a species live.  Yes, many of us can culturally relate to what I’ve just written.  That’s how we were raised (although some of us still choose to live a wanderlust life).  But there are many cultures of humans who do or did roam vast distances.  Nomadic and migratory peoples would take a lot of adjusting to live a life that most of us know as “normal”….just as it would be a massive shock to our lives to never have a rooted-down home. 

Despite humans being all one species, we have many different cultures.  And in terms of bottlenose dolphins, we share that in common.  There are currently two species of bottlenose dolphins, the common and the Indo-Pacific.  The common is further split into sub-species, but even within those sub-species we see very different cultural differences in populations.  Some stick to a home-range, some travel large distances, some dive to great depths for food while others specialize in hunting prey in inches of water.

Why you so complicated, sea mammal?

The point is, we can’t easily say that dolphins need to move, or that they don’t need to move.  We have to understand their natural history, not just as a species as a whole, but as a population.  As a culture.  And lastly (but not least importantly), as an individual.  It’s just as unfair to say that dolphins need hundreds of miles to swim in order to be happy as it is to say that they unequivocally don’t need it.  Would a dolphin who is born in human care live a better life in a larger, more naturalistic habitat?  I can’t even hazard a guess unless I know the animal well, but I think any animal care professional would emphatically vote YES for any habitat upgrades as long as it was the right fit for the animals in question.

Which brings me to the last point, which is that not all animals are eager to just move into a new place.  This is a point of contention when it comes to zoo professionals themselves, and not just with the animal rights extremists.  While we all would want the most naturalistic, gigantic habitat for our animal friends, we still have to consider what steps that requires in order to ensure the animals themselves benefit from it.  I know a few dolphins who would freak out if they were plopped into any habitat other than the ones they know; that's just who they are.   It's not as simple as just building a better habitat and BOOM everybody's happier.

Don't we all, Garth?

But that can't be an excuse for us in the field, either. Saying the dolphins need to travel hundreds of miles may be true for some, but not all. But just because the animals in our care may be doing well in their current habitats doesn’t mean we as zoological professionals should sit on our laurels.  It has to constantly be an assessment; what is really best for the animals?  Keeping that question as the pinnacle around which all our other decisions are made is what we are and should be about in our profession.  There are no simple answers, even though we feel like we need to answer a critical question with one.  The complicated nature of living alongside of animals pushes us to always change, to ask questions, to be critical of ourselves, and to acknowledge all facets of an animal's needs both as an individual and within a population.

Personally, I’m ready to root down and live in a small apartment and have a simple life.  That’s just me; that’s not me speaking for the entire human race.  And now, I take off my philosopher's hat so that I can combat the next leg of my journey, which will likely involve a lot of Red Bull and excitement about the next chapter!

*Even though this move is a) for an awesome opportunity and b) will undoubtedly put me into the loving arms of many donut bakeries

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