Last October, when CNN broadcast the documentary Blackfish, a film that tells the story of the 2010 killing of a SeaWorld trainer by an orca named Tilikum, there was a public outcry against marine parks — such as SeaWorld — that keep cetaceans in captivity. After the movie aired, several veterinarians and the director of the Dolphin Project at the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, California, Ric O’Barry, stepped forward to state their professional opinions that confining orcas can make them psychotic.
SeaWorld, however, countered that marine parks such as theirs have done great works in conservation and that hundreds of millions of people have come to love and learn about orcas and other marine animals because of their popular shows and exhibits.
But given what we now know about how confinement can influence an animal’s behavior, should cetaceans ever be kept in a captive environment?
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?
There are more tigers in captivity (such as this one) than there are left in the wild. ©John T. Andrews
There are some statistics that you hear that knock your socks off, and you just can’t quite believe them. You think they’re concocted purely to get attention and for shock value. Here’s one I recently came across that fits that category: There are more tigers in American backyards than there are left in the wild throughout the world.
How could that be?! I wondered. After all, the tiger isn’t even indigenous to the United States! It turns out that there is very little regulation on keeping wild tigers here. And because their body parts are prized in Asian black markets for traditional medicines and folk remedies — and because they are popular subjects for photographers and as college mascots — trafficking in and owning tigers becomes a means of making money.