Thursday, March 25, 2010

Animals in Captivity

The recent case of a SeaWorld trainer who was killed by Tilikum, a performing whale kept at SeaWorld in Orlando, has generated intense debate about whether marine mammals like Tilikum should be kept in captivity at all. As expected, the animal welfare community, and a surprising number of supporters from outside of this community, recommend ceasing the practice of keeping marine mammals as entertainment, while representatives of marine mammal parks and zoos advocate keeping captive wild animals, arguing that shows like the Shamu show at SeaWorld are less about entertainment and more about education and conservation. The Academy Award-nominated film The Cove, which highlighted the gruesome manner in which dolphins are caught (and killed) in Japan, added fuel to this debate.

It is shameful that it takes the tragic death of a woman, SeaWorld’s Dawn Brancheau, or the covert filming of thousands of dolphins being brutally slaughtered, to shed light on these issues. For much of the public, it is difficult to see the harm in keeping wild animals captive, when entertainment venues such as circuses, marine mammal parks, and even zoos hide their morally unpleasant dealings behind a fa├žade of glitzy performances or even conservation rhetoric. What’s wrong with visiting the zoo, or the circus, or a marine mammal park?

In my adopted state of New Mexico, residents were recently horrified to hear that Kashka, a “beloved” sixteen-year old giraffe kept at the Rio Grande Zoo, was dumped in a zoo dumpster and carted off to the landfill after being euthanized last week. What was the outrage about? Were people horrified at the callous treatment of an animal who brought profits to the local zoo and pleasure to local residents?

It turns out that dumping dead zoo animals in the landfill is standard procedure after an animal has died, but that Kashka’s body should have been driven directly to the landfill, rather than placed into the dumpster for pickup with the rest of the zoo trash. A worker is currently under investigation for this breach in protocol.

But apparently no one cares about the fact that Kashka, a 2200 pound animal who, in Africa, would roam with her family over a range that extends up to 100 square miles, and could run as fast as 35 miles per hour, was kept in an enclosure at the zoo which was a tiny fraction of her natural habitat. Kashka should have been living in Africa with her kin, traveling and mating and socializing with her fellow giraffes, foraging for food, and even dying in the wild. No one had a right to take her away from that life and to force her to live in a tiny space, to give birth to babies who will eventually be sold to other zoos, all to entertain and “educate” the public. And while she certainly should not have been dumped in a dumpster after her death, the reality is that that sad ending was only the final sad coda to a very sad life.