When the Vancouver Aquarium disallowed captive cetaceans, the comments were full of animal lovers beaming at the prospect of orcas swimming into the sunset, utopists hoping SeaWorld would follow suit, et cetera.
But I thought of Keiko, Free Willy’s star. Public outrage contributed to a long, difficult, and only debatably successful rehabilitation for the whale. He never integrated into a pod, sought human companionship even after release, and succumbed to pneumonia.
Keiko wasn’t the prime candidate for release, but the public invested in him. It’s frightening how concern, empathy, and publicity buzzes outweighed science. I’m no marine biologist — whales are my favourite animals, and I’m eager to learn, but that doesn’t equal an educated opinion on what’s best for them.
Drafting ecological policies earns pats on the back without necessarily being proactive or productive, but we can’t afford laziness. We can’t accept “victories” without weighing their pros and cons, or without using newfound knowledge to make superior decisions.
For example, the Vancouver Aquarium actually committed to stop displaying animals captured from the wild in 1996. Their cetaceans are all rescues, or born in captivity and unfit for release. Vancouver Aquarium’s researchers worry about the ban’s detriment to mammal rescues.
Knowing captivity’s negative effects on cetaceans, will we re-examine the situations of other large animals, like lions or elephants? Captivity is problematic for elephants, resulting in disease, obesity, and infertility among other things.
After clamping down on non-profits and zoological institutes, will we tackle our exotic pet trade problem? Inconsistent, unenforced legislature results in North Americans housing lions, cobras, and bears as household pets.
Finally, if we return whales to the water, will we push for comprehensive management for our oceans’ resources and protections? They’ve known ecologically detrimental and conflicting piecemeal management, victimized by pollution and climate change.
If you cheer for “saving” animals, cheer for the environmental issues that are too complicated or ugly for children’s movies. There’s no use pushing animals back into nature if it means pushing them into another field we’ve wrecked.
My responsibility isn’t to be overly enthusiastic about supposed progression, but to educate myself to the best of my ability, and listen to the scientists who are properly educated. If they’re worried, I’m worried.
Before you advocate for what to do with captive animals, take every factor into account. Don’t just go with your gut.