Thursday, 21 August 2014

National Aquarium in Baltimore: Who's Pulling The Flippers?

It would seem that the aquarium's management have completely lost site of the reasons why urban zoos and aquariums are so important in their ability to give visitors (particularly the young) a close-up and personal experience of wildlife and its importance in matters of conservation.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore has displayed dolphins for many years but are now considering retiring them to a "sanctuary".  CEO John Racanelli states in a recent article in the Baltimore Magazine that films such as "Free Willy", "The Cove" and "Blackfish" have driven such an agenda. 

If this is the case, then this really is an absurd idea and the reason given for promoting it by the aquarium's CEO are weak to say the least.  If he is honestly justifying removing the dolphins from the aquarium on the basis of the above mentioned films then the lunatics really have taken over the asylum. 

First, it is important to understand that the 1999 feature film "Free Willy" is a work of fiction:  a young boy befriends a lone killer whale in a theme park whose owner plans to kill the whale to gain a $1,000,000 insurance policy; after a series of adventures, the boy manages to free the whale back to the wild.

Ironically, Kieko (the whale used in the film) was being held alone in a Mexican theme park.  The film generated concern over his care and a project was mounted to release him back to the wild.  The first stage of this plan was his removal to a purpose built pool at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and then to a sea pen in Iceland were he would be rehabilitated back to the wild.  Unfortunately, the project was beset with problems and political wrangling within the animal-rights lobby groups  promoting the project. 

Keiko was freed in August 2002 but rather than integrating with wild whales he was discovered 3 weeks later seeking human interaction and begging for food from people in a Norwegian fjord.  This is where he ended his days being cared for by appointed keepers.  He died of suspected pneumonia in December 2003. The project was deemed a failure and certainly did not have the same 'feel good' ending to the Free Willy movie that was, as stated, a work of fiction.

Second, the 2009 film "The Cove" examined the traditional but bloody Japanese drive hunt fisheries of dolphins and whales in the coastal town of Taiji.  Some have criticised the film stating its prime impact was lost as regards the hunt.  They cite that people such as activist Ric O'Barry steered the films ethos to their own
anti-captivity agenda regarding the small number of animals removed alive from the hunt for aquariums rather than the prime reason for the hunt as 'pest control' and the killing and butchering of animals for meat.
Third, the 2013 film "Blackfish" directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite purports to show the mistreatment of killer whales at the SeaWorld marine parks in the USA. Cowperthwaite maintains she made the film due to an interest in the accidental killing of a trainer Dawn Brancheau by a whale in the Orlando SeaWorld park in 2010; this death also resulted in the 2012 book "Death at Seaworld" by David Kirby.  The film not only relied heavily on Kirby's  book but also on the anecdotal evidence from a handful of disgruntled former animal staff and archive video clips from television news interviews and You Tube.  SeaWorld and Dawn Brancheau's family refused to take part in the film as they rightly suspected that the film would be promoting an animal-rights agenda.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore has exhibited dolphins in its current facility since 1990.  The animals are bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) not killer whales (
Orcinus orca) so any association with allegations made in the film "Blackfish" are a non sequitur.  Although the animal-rights lobby have tried very hard to pursue their personal agendas against aquariums and zoos off the back of this film to encompass not just other aquatic mammals and also terrestrial mammals such as elephants

Of the seven dolphins housed at the National Aquarium, all have been acquired via captive breeding.  Therefore, any relationship these animals have to the film "The Cove" is none existent, as they were not obtained from any drive fishery. 

In a further comment in the Baltimore Magazine CEO John Racanelli makes the further strange observation that:  

“...Most large mammals in zoos get to ‘retire’ in elephant or lion sanctuaries...”
This is an entirely false and it is puzzling a zoo professional should make such a misleading statement.

There are no elephant or lion 'sanctuaries' in the USA unless you count those set-up by animal-rights groups such as Performing Animal Welfare Society - PAWS.  

This group were controversially involved in removing three elephants from the Toronto Zoo against the wishes of the zoos management and keeping staff in October 2013.  The move was sanctioned by local politicians under pressure from animal-rights groups and their supporters and many consider it was undertaken for
political reasons.  Due to this action the zoo subsequently lost its accreditation to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (which accredits most major zoos in North America).

Therefore, it is reasonable to ask as to the furture of the aquarium's dolphins - who is pulling the strings here - zoo professionals or the animal-right lobby.

In 2012, the aquarium decided to abandon scheduled dolphin shows for a more free form interaction between staff, dolphins and the public.  At the time, the reasons given was that the scheduled shows were oversubscribed and visitors could feel disadvantaged not being able to see the animals performing.  

Now we see the muted development of a sanctuary where animals will be removed entirely from the aquarium to a seaside location with suggestions that they could be viewed via Skype. 
It would seem that the aquarium's management have completely lost site of the reasons why urban zoos and aquariums are so important in their ability to give visitors (particularly the young) a close-up and personal experience of wildlife and its importance in matters of conservation.  The suggestion that Skype and other technological facsimiles could have equal impact is alarmingly naive.

Finally, one could question as to why other alternatives have not be
pursued to ensure the dolphins remain at the aquarium.  The most obvious would be to redeveloped and maybe expand the current exhibit into a more naturalistic habitat as has been undertaken in Harderwijk Marine Mammal Park in The Netherlands with its Dolphin Lagoon.  Further Reading

Free Willy! Free Kieko?

The Cove and Animals Acquired For Dolphinaria

Blackfish and the Black Arts of Propaganda

Update October 2017

True to form The National Aquarium in Baltimore CEO John Racanelli takes part in a fringe meeting on "dolphin sanctuaries" a the 22st Biennal Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Halifax, Nova Scotia organised by various animal-rights activists.  One has to question whether this person is fit to representing a large zoological collection. This unfortunately  follows on from the foolish and na├»ve actions of the American Zoo Association inviting  a well known animal-rights activist Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States to give a key note speech at their 2017 Conference.