Dragons Are Too Cute For Tanks? Absolutely Not

Forgive me, but I’m having a very hard time lately with all the recent attention given to the ethics and morality of keeping wildlife in zoos and aquariums (or “captivity”). Not only have we been raising questions concerning large social and intelligent animals like dolphins and whales, we are now raising concerns about other species, including weedy sea dragons recently on TreeHugger.

While I applaud the fact that dragons and whales are being given equal bearing in this discussion (though I am sure it is due to their engaging and enchanting first impressions on people and not because the fish are really being elevated to the status that most mammals enjoy) I am disturbed, yet again, by this idea that there is nothing redeeming about animals housed in the zoological field.

Am I simply taking this debate too personally?  Is it silly of me to balk at the fact that only “cute” animals get this outpouring of concern and that “ugly” animals like toadfish sent into space by NASA seem to get no response or air time when discussing the treatment and value of animals in our society?

It’s true that sea dragons – for both species kept in the trade – are extremely delicate animals. Its likewise true that most public aquaria do not attempt them due to their delicacy, their need for large expensive chilled and ultraviolet sterilized exhibits, and their legendarily picky dietary needs.   As ambush predators their first instincts are to stalk and seek out actively swimming prey.   Live foods are incredibly expensive to feed, particularly since some of the best foods for dragons – mysid shrimp – are themselves cannibalistic carnivores that when kept together eat one another.  It becomes a process of raising their live foods, gut loading their food with algae to optimize their nutrition (and likewise culturing algae), freezing the food to avoid introducing parasites and bacteria, and then target or hand feeding each dragon.  These animals can be a huge pain in the rear to display, to be frank.

But their captivating presence is hard to deny and they are phenomenal conversation starters.  When I stand next to their display aquariums I get an endless stream of questions and can easily use them to draw attention to their relationships to seahorses, conservation status for all sygnathids, and effects people have on their fragile habitat homes in the wild.

TreeHugger and Planet Green alike propose only housing sustainable species – captive raised aquarium specimens like some species of clownfish, dottybacks, seahorses, cardinal fish, and a few invertebrates – but the fact is that public aquariums and hobbyists alike advance the science of being able to produce captive raised specimens at all.  If we don’t bring in animals that we can’t yet breed, then we’ll never discover how to actually breed them.  For your average hobbyist, I heartily endorse the ideas presented for a sustainable aquarium environment, but the truth is that there are many (many!) highly advanced aquarists both at home and in professional institutions that make research and study possible and extend the lessons learned into areas as diverse as fisheries and conservation research and even molecular biology projects (particularly with the model organism zebrafish).

What I take issue with above all else mentioned in the sea dragon blurb is the suggestion that dragons in zoos and aquariums are doomed in their existence and that breeding never occurs.  Quite simply, that isn’t true. We’ve had successful egg transfers with dragons, and even a successful hatch or two, the big hurdle in their husbandry seems to be shortfalls in nutrition for the fry (aka “baby dragons”) and proper water conditions for the eggs to fully develop without being lost.   And the 60% survival rate cited for adults (the source of which I can’t discern), well, to be honest that’s a pretty decent rate of success for any wild caught animal passing through the trade.  There are still species for which we have 90% loss rates or more, simply because we don’t yet know what they need.

Are there species in the aquarium trade – both professional and hobby – that perhaps should not be in it? Maybe.  But dragons are not one of them.  For every person that denies the effect that observing these animals firsthand can have I challenge them to create the same lasting impression on a child only using puppet stuffed fish toys and Discovery channel documentaries.  Is it possible to create a nature loving and respecting public without zoos and aquariums? Maybe.  I will admit that it is possible.  But after watching my students’ reactions to touching, feeding, observing, and interacting with “captive” wildlife, I am convinced that zoos and aquariums can be powerful allies in the overall campaign to incite passion, respect, and interest in the natural world.


3 Responses to “Dragons Are Too Cute For Tanks? Absolutely Not”

  1. I volunteer at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. I feel very good when I am peppered with questions (and I am able to answer them!) Sometimes I feel that the average person that passes through is untouched and I wonder if the aquarium is worth the effort. When I consider all the programs, camps, school classes, and other things that the aquarium does (and all those that have their curiosity piqued by their visit) I feel very good about the organization.

    As far as whether we should even keep animals, if so which, it seems to me we need some objective measure of “happiness” or “satisfaction” in an animal. Perhaps we need to do fMRIs of squid, sea horses, etc., to learn how to measure their emotional state. In the meantime, let’s make prudent, cautious decisions considering the welfare of our charges.