On July Fourth, Americans from sea to shining sea will celebrate our independence and right to self-determination. But for the countless fish, dolphins, whales, sea lions and other animals kept in chlorinated tanks in aquariums and marine mammal parks—where the “shining sea” is a fading memory—July Fourth is just another “dependence day.” We humans are captivated by beautiful fish and marine mammals, but the animals themselves pay for our curiosity with their freedom. Many have paid with their lives.
The vast majority of animals in aquariums and marine parks have been removed from their rightful ocean homes. At the new Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, for example, more than 100,000 animals were netted out of the sea to be put on display. From 1995 to 2004, Cuba alone captured and sold at least 140 bottlenose dolphins to marine “attractions.”
Instead of swimming and living in water hundreds of fathoms deep, whales, fish and dolphins are relegated to shallow tanks measured in gallons.
Can a true understanding and appreciation of sea life come from looking at bored, frustrated animals living in artificial environments, as aquariums claim? The answer is “no.” Very few visitors leave aquariums with a newfound mission to conserve and protect aquatic wildlife. And why should they, when they are encouraged to harass and mishandle the very animals they are supposed to care about?
Many aquariums are now offering touch tanks and “swim-with” programs, giving visitors carte blanche to violate these animals’ already-diminished worlds. Already harassed by gawking crowds of humans outside the glass, now they are subjected to an invasion of people right inside the tanks. Touch tanks are death traps for animals. Less than three months after opening, 39 out of 42 stingrays died at the Calgary Zoo’s touch tank; 17 of 28 stingrays died in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s tank. Eleven of 16 dolphins housed at The Mirage’s Dolphin Habitat in Las Vegas, where patrons can pay to be a “trainer” for a day, have died since the facility opened.
The mortality rate for all species of marine life in captivity is high. Animals have become sick and have died from contaminated water, from stress-related ulcers and from ingesting key chains, sunglasses and rocks tossed into their tanks. They’ve died while being treated for common ear and tooth infections. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a 229-pound bluefin tuna died after ramming himself head first into the tank’s acrylic viewing window. At least three great white sharks died after being captured and stored in the facility’s holding pen. Since official records are sketchy at best, there is no way of knowing for sure how many animals perish in captivity. But since many crowd-pleasing animals like orcas and dolphins are covered by million-dollar insurance policies, even dead they bring in the bucks.
Animals of the sea inhabit vast, fascinating and complex worlds. Many species establish close, cooperative and long-standing relationships with one another. In aquariums, these multifaceted social bonds are left in tatters. Animals aren’t viewed as unique individuals by this profitable industry; they are interchangeable and replaceable. SeaWorld, which owns most of the captive orcas and dolphins in the United States, has used at least 51 orcas named Shamu.
There is no Independence Day for animals in aquariums. Families who care about dolphins, whales and other marine animals can help keep them in the oceans where they belong by refusing to patronize aquariums and marine mammal theme parks when hitting the road this summer. Don’t celebrate your freedom at the expense of those who have lost theirs.
Jennifer O’Connor is an animals in entertainment campaign writer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.