Congressional Hearing Scheduled On Cetaceans In Zoos

If you’re a regular WaterNotes reader, you’ve been seeing a lot here lately about the ethics of keeping wildlife in zoos and aquariums. I’ve certainly tried to be polite while voicing my opinions, and I think my stance on it is clear:  I fall squarely within the “these animals are ambassadors for their species and the habitats they live in” camp.

Here’s the rub in my position though: it only holds up when the treatment of the animals is impeccable and when their health and welfare is given the highest priority.  The truth is that there is a wide range of conditions experienced by animals across the various zoos, aquariums, parks, and other facilities in the US.

I have been lucky in my career to have worked only for Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited institutions that meet certain guidelines and criteria concerning husbandry and care of the animals, and education and research commitments for the future. In many ways the “industry” has self-regulated underneath this AZA certification process as an additional commitment to animal welfare above and beyond those requirements imposed by the USDA, National Marine Fisheries Service, and other government agencies.  AZA accreditation fills in a few holes and flaws in this government oversight, particularly where regulations are weak or have become outdated as husbandry science has evolved.  But not every zoo and aquarium carries AZA accreditation.

All marine mammals housed in facilities in the US are documented through the National Marine Fisheries Service, which administers the all-important Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  This incredibly important document restricted trade and capture of marine mammals in US waters, but allows for display only when education and conservation programs are also in place.  Most regrettably, regulations on those education and conservation programs were never defined.  I feel the facilities I have worked with have done immense work towards education and conservation, but without regulations, the effectiveness and scope of educational programs can potentially vary wildly from one institution to another.

Because of the recent events in Orlando, Florida, Congress will hear testimony concerning marine mammals in captivity on April 27th.

This is a huge development for many reasons and – I feel – a golden opportunity for zoos and aquariums to give a voice to their husbandry practices, reveal their missions, and inform the public about the size and scale of their education and conservation programs.  It’s a chance to separate the institutions who get it right (and most likely carry AZA credentials) and those that have a long way to go.  It is also a chance to discuss what the role of zoos and aquariums can be and what more they can do, towards fulfilling the obligations of the MMPA to use contact with and observation of marine mammals to inspire our next generation of ocean advocates and stewards.

I will anxiously await the hearing and I hope that WaterNotes readers – whatever your own personal ideas – will likewise send your thoughts to Congress and keep an open mind.  I do not see this as an all-call to release every animal and the end of zoos and aquariums, I see it as a chance for us to take a dramatic leap forward.

Finally, all of these recent events create one last opportunity: a moment to be utterly honest about the challenges of keeping marine animals healthy in zoos and to make their origins (whether caught or bred) known. Until very recently the documentation on marine mammals in the US was a private database at an NMFS office, but no more.  The SunSentinel has made a public database available online.  I.. like so many others.. will be scouring it this weekend to learn as much as I can from it.

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One Comment to “Congressional Hearing Scheduled On Cetaceans In Zoos”

  1. I am a huge supporter of all Sea World parks, and have had the opportunity to work with them in many rescues throughout the years. And my view is simple. There are valid reasons for captivity, I believe in the research, conservation and education of these facilities because I have seen them first hand. That being said, years pass and things change, we learn more about the species we are keeping captive and therefore the regulations surrounding captive animals needs to be regularly reviewed and altered as well, in the best interest of the animals. The sad truth is, though Sea World has alway gone above and beyond the required specifications on behalf of their animals, not all Zoo’s and parks do! Some are in deplorable conditions, and should have been closed long ago. Parks like Sea World should be the ambassadors for all wild life, and support the changes to these regulations, even provide the research data to aid the legislation in designing them to better serve the animals. By no means am I anti-captivity, but I am anti-stupidity and having read the MMPA and current regulations, they are outdated and insufficient to protect the animals in our care.