by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
The following blog series is a point-by-point rebuttal to SeaWorld, following SeaWorld's critical reaction to the controversial 2013 documentary, Blackfish. Each blog entry will present an argument made by SeaWorld and a rebuttal by Barry MacKay.
The sharpest arrow in SeaWorld’s quiver of defense may well be the argument that an undisclosed percentage of its revenue (estimated by SeaWorld detractors to be about 0.0006%), as well as its collective expertise, contribute to wildlife rescue and rehabilitation.
We are supportive of three rationales for having wild animals in captive conditions. They are: 1) wildlife rehabilitation; 2) sanctuaries; and 3) captive breeding (particularly in situ) of rare, threatened, or endangered species, if solidly connected to a feasible plan for release into suitable habitat. SeaWorld meets none of these criteria as its raison d’etre, ambit, or function. SeaWorld can contribute to the first one, wildlife rehabilitation (including rescue), to the degree that it has resources that can aid in restoring disabled, injured, or orphaned wildlife of a small range of species back to the wild. Even 0.0006% of its revenue is more than can be found in the coffers of many NGOs dedicated to marine life rescue and rehabilitation.
NGOs who work in the wildlife rehabilitation community are forever in need of funding, primarily, and expertise, intermittently.
Funding is a problem for most wildlife rehabilitation endeavors because the action of providing care for orphaned or injured animals, or other animals unable to care for themselves in their natural environment without first benefitting from some level of assistance from human caregivers, does not produce a product or service for which there is a great enough demand to generate needed funding. The same circumstance applies to sanctuaries. This is an over-generalized statement, to the degree that there are individuals who both have and are willing to share economic and other resources in the interest of assisting wildlife rehabilitation activities and/or sanctuaries. There are also various granting agencies willing to assist, but the need is always much greater than available funding can service.
Both of these activities (wildlife rehabilitation and sanctuaries) function independently of the third acceptable reason for holding wildlife captive: conservation. With some notable exceptions to be sure, neither wildlife rehabilitation nor sanctuaries contribute significantly to conservation, though the ability to do so exists and is exercised by some sanctuaries and rescue centers who work with threatened species (elephants, for example). Some primate sanctuaries have campaigned against biomedical research that takes threatened species from the wild. The expertise and credibility that derive from rescue and rehabilitation work are sometimes directed toward support of pro-conservation legislation—but none of this applies to SeaWorld.
All three of these activities tend not, in and of themselves, to generate adequate funds from the public. The zoo and aquarium industry can generate self-funding, but rarely, if ever, as a function of solely keeping animals captive, and certainly not from keeping animals captive under conditions in which the needs and well-being of the animals take precedent over allowing the public to view and be entertained by them. What is important to the zoo and aquarium industry is the degree to which animals provide entertainment and various commercial spin-off activities. Predominately, and again with exceptions, the zoo and aquarium industry is an entertainment industry, often with direct or indirect links to other entertainments using live animals (even, in the past, including so-called “canned hunting”).
The zoo and aquarium industry also claims to “educate” the public. Whether “education” is, of itself, justification for keeping a wild animal in captivity, is a question that will elicit a variety of opinions—but, the fact is that there is virtually nothing that is taught by these facilities that requires an animal to lose its freedom.
The zoo and aquarium industry is a business, and business activity is designed, by definition of the term, to raise money and produce profits. Wildlife rehabilitation, sanctuaries, and endangered species captive-breeding-and-release programs are not businesses, but are non-profit activities. They can benefit from the largesse of businesses, including successful business practitioners, but there is absolutely no reason why such largesse should come from profits that result from the use of animals. Various foundations and granting agencies help out. Many wildlife rehabilitation endeavors and sanctuaries are registered (and thus heavily regulated and monitored) charities, empowered to provide a degree of tax exemption for donations. They may do some marketing, but it is not their function to generate profits.
It is not the funding of good work that is the issue; it is the way in which the money is earned in the first instance. One could go into a public or private garden, cut all the flowers, bundle them, and give them out to poor patients in hospitals and charitably-funded senior citizens’ homes, and feel good that people are cheered up by flowers. However, such good deeds do not justify the wrongness inherent to destroying other people’s gardens or publicly-funded gardens. What is right does not provide justification for what is wrong.
The real expertise required by wildlife rehabilitation organizations is usually developed within the wildlife rehabilitation community. So, while we are grateful that SeaWorld has developed procedures, products, and methodologies that may be applicable to wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, we have no doubt that, given the required resources, the wildlife rehabilitation community would better develop such procedures, products, and methodologies on its own.
Meanwhile, it must be said that, while Born Free USA fully supports the goals of proper and effective wildlife rehabilitation, we also recognize that the practice of wildlife rehabilitation does not address the root cause of problems that have beset most animals who require the service. To a variable degree, the greatest numbers of causes for wild animals requiring rehabilitation are, by far, anthropogenic (human-related), and SeaWorld does little, if anything, significant with its resources to address these concerns. Oil spills, over-fishing, dolphin and whale hunting, non-biodegradable drift-net fishing, sonic-testing, climate change and subsequent ice melt, fishery by-catch, shark-finning, abandoned lobster and crab traps, fish-farming, siltation, exotic species introduction, agricultural run-off and eutrophication, acid rain, loss of the ozone layer, biomass reduction… There are so many different and variable threats to the ability of the oceans to sustain marine life. And, far from challenging them, SeaWorld and other aquariums help fuel at least some of these problems.