In the hot, desert climate of Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, 20 penguins are living in comfort, say the managers of Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. The birds reside in a climate-controlled environment, receive the best veterinary care, and never have to worry about lurking predators.
When you visit Ski Dubai, you can pay to have a “penguin encounter,” where you’ll be able to play with and touch the penguins. Representatives of the resort say that these animals are “ambassadors,” teaching patrons about their wild counterparts and the need to conserve their threatened natural habitat, Antarctica.
But can animals that have been born and raised in captivity and habituated to humans in unnatural ways ever be true ambassadors for the natural world? Can they teach us anything about the wild or move us to care for the environments from which they are so distantly removed?
A worry-free life
The Dubai penguins were relocated earlier this year from SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas, where a penguin-breeding program has been underway for several years. Of the 20, 10 are king penguins, currently listed as of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. The other 10 are gentoo penguins, officially listed as “near threatened.” Ski Dubai has stated that the birds “are treated like royalty,” and that their presence helps raise public awareness about the importance of conserving these species.
In fact, the penguins do seem to be well cared for. Ski Dubai has fabricated a snow-covered “world” for them that is chilled to a constant 28 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, a habitat the managers describe as “mirroring Antarctica.” Ski Dubai reports that a staff of 13 people serves the penguins restaurant-quality dishes and that veterinarians check the birds every two weeks. According to the resort, the penguins are never forced to do anything they don’t want to do and are under no stress.
Ski Dubai says that some of the money it makes from the penguin encounters will be put toward penguin conservation efforts and that the birds themselves will help raise awareness of the importance of protecting their wild counterparts. The resort is counting on this attraction to be a popular — and profitable — endeavor, since close-up, “quality” time with penguins is a hard-to-come-by experience in the Middle East. The hope is that once a person spends time with the birds, he or she will feel an affinity for the species and will want to aid in saving its natural environment.
Using captive animals as ambassadors for conservation efforts is not a new idea, of course. Many animal rehabilitation centers in the United States use injured animals that — for one reason or another — cannot be returned to the wild as “animal educators.” These animals are taken to exhibits and shows to interest the public in the plight of the species as a whole.
The Dubai penguins, however, have a different history than born-in-the-wild animals that are rescued after an injury and are too impaired to survive on their own back in their natural habitats. The Dubai penguins were bred and raised domestically and now must live out their lives artificially, far from their native home.
Critics say that Ski Dubai is a profit-seeking venture, and that if the company were genuinely concerned about protecting penguins and other Antarctic creatures, it would simply leave them be. Much like the operations that breed and keep tigers in captivity in order to provide photography enthusiasts with opportunities to take pictures of big cats or school sports teams with mascots, Ski Dubai is simply profiting off the trade in wildlife and keeping what-should-be-wild animals as “pets.”
Do you think the Dubai penguins are true animal ambassadors, educating people about their species and the fragile Antarctic ecosystem — just as injured wildlife from rehabilitation centers do? Or are the healthy, born-in-captivity Dubai penguins purely agents for human entertainment and profit?
Feature photo: Will the captive Dubai penguins generate public interest in the wild gentoos and their natural home in Antarctica? ©Colin McNulty