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Shame on you . . .

I just want to be free!
I just want to be free!
Photo By: Stephen Dickstein

Shame on you . . .

The controversy over captivity for wildlife is one that never seems to resolve itself or go away; especially when the word education is used. Again, the indifference or willingness of people to place animals at a lower echelon of existence in the life chain speaks volumes.

Last month (February 7th), the Orlando Sentinel ran The Front Burner commentary on whether captivity is harmful to animals. Orlando Sentinel editorial writer Darryl E. Owens laid out the issue from two fronts. On the one side are the critics of zoos and animal parks who ". . . argue that captivity violates the rights of sentient creatures. Moreover, they say that confined creatures — not unlike humans — suffer emotional trauma. The real lesson zoological parks teach children . . . is that confinement of animals is cool."

On the other side, says Owens, ". . . supporters argue that animals are well served by often being plucked from areas where poaching and hunting are rampant. And they're fed regularly, rather than having to face starvation in their natural habitats. Humans, meanwhile, see live animals and develop compassion and a zeal for protecting them . . .".

Admittedly this is a complex issue because the world is not simple and humans often exploit animals for their own gain (financial) and bloodlust (hunting). Said Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas French, author of "Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives", "Captivity is imperfect in the best circumstances, but nature doesn’t care about freedom. African wild animals are not free to go wherever they want. A zoo isn’t Africa, but it keeps them safe. The keepers struggle with their ambivalence about wishing the animals could be free in the wild and their understanding that in many cases there is no wild for them to go back to.”

We want to keep them safe, but at what price their freedom? Animals in captivity are parts of a live "collection" owned and controlled by people in various facilities from zoos to roadside hell holes. Being part of a "collection" is not the same as being free, but again supporters will argue they're safe and help educate the masses who someday will be entrusted with their care.

Education is often cited as the justification for placing animals into captivity, but are we really educating or just placing animals on display for financial gain or entertainment? Is this really just an excuse for removing an animal from his or her own freedom or do we believe greater interests are served as determined by human species minds?

As one of the guest columnist's in The Front Burner discussion Philip Tedeschi, executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver wrote, "It is hard to deny that captive animals are not being harmed by the experience of being captives or, at the very least, psychologically tormented. Unless an animal can no longer survive on its own in the wild, or if its release would significantly harm the environment or create significant public-safety concerns, it is hard to justify its incarceration. People may come away awed by the animals themselves, possibly even entertained, but there is perhaps some level of dissonance. Subconsciously, we know it is wrong. We are watching suffering and exploitation." Shame on us!

Counters Sarah Cunningham, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of the Center for Experiential and Environmental Education at Unity College in Maine, "That is the primary mission of the best living-animal collections around the world — to inspire people to care about other species, so that we create some collective will to change the course of history."

Dr. Cunningham, speaking as the other guest columnist in The Front Burner discussion states, "Part of the reason debates about captive animals are so contentious is that both sides include people who care deeply about animals and about this biodiversity crisis, but who have different views on whether we should be primarily concerned with respecting animal rights or promoting welfare and conservation."

Are we using individual animals, possibly sacrificing their freedom, in order to benefit other members of a species? Do we do this with the justification of educating people to respect animals, conservation or protection from poaching or other horrors perpetuated by the human species? This is a constant struggle of differing opinions about what is best for animals and how their freedom is impacted by the decisions made by people.

For many this argument has been placed on a very rocky debate when discussing the corporate entity SeaWorld and domains like it. "Since Blackfish made its debut, public awareness about the problems associated with keeping orcas in captivity has grown, and attitudes appear to be shifting in their favor, despite the industry’s continued rebuttals."

Blackfish has taken the animals in captivity issue to a whole new level of awareness and concern, but despite the tragic and compelling story the documentary reveals you can still hear conversation at your workplace like this:

  • "Despite Blackfish, I'll still be going to SeaWorld."
  • "Blackfish is fake."

Even if some of the content in Blackfish were fake, which we doubt, ask the question whether orcas really want to spend their lives confined in a limited space swimming pool? Then watch the blank stares of your colleagues as that realization starts to sink in.

However, there are those who continue to believe that captive animals are an invaluable source of education and a huge developer of income for states like Florida. In a recent Orlando Sentinel Letter to the Editor the point was made that ". . . SeaWorld is a major vacation destination for millions of families coming to Florida. Shamu has become a tourist icon, like Disney's Mickey Mouse." Furthermore, this letter writer also believes, "Depriving generations of people of seeing these magnificent marine mammals would be a travesty. Captive marine mammals are ambassadors for their species, as they educate young and old who will never have the opportunity of seeing them in the wild."

Of course there are a lot of sights we'll never see in our lifetime, but that doesn't push all of us to want to incarcerate animals for our so-called educational benefit and greed. Isn't freedom for animals worth something more than our own sense of need?

Despite Shamu's possible iconic status, the controversy created by Blackfish has prompted California to introduce ". . . a groundbreaking bill that seeks to ban orca captivity in California and retire the state’s current residents to sea pens."

The Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB 2140), introduced by California Assembly member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), ". . . has three main goals that include banning the use of orcas as performers in theme shows, ending captive breeding programs and ending the import and export of orcas and their genetic material into and out of the state. It would also require that the state’s 10 captive orcas, who are currently at SeaWorld, be retired to sea pens if possible or kept on display only. It would exempt any orcas who were injured or stranded and are being held as a part of a rescue and rehabilitation effort. Violations would be punished by $100,000 in fines, six months in jail, or both."

According to Assemblyman Bloom, "As a state we should lead the way in ending captivity for entertainment purposes and should be ensuring our current captive population general welfare needs are taken care of, and that we end any future captivity whether it be by capture or captive breeding programs here in California. Many scientists agree holding orcas captive have no conservation benefits for orcas in the wild and have only advanced captive breeding techniques with debatable success. If we truly want to help the orca we should focus our efforts on restoring habitat in the wild and protecting our oceans."

Bravo, an enlightened viewpoint on behalf of the animals. Finally, someone recognizes this proclamation of education by SeaWorld is nothing more than a farce driven by the quest for the almighty dollar. Recognize what is, at best, an artificial sense of learning that is not real when captive animals are penned up in limited spaces and forced to perform circus tricks. This is not a simulation of their lives in the wild of the free world. SeaWorld is by no means the only culprit here and humankind needs to stand up on behalf of the animals with which we share this earth.

Remember Mr. Tedeschi's key point on this controversy, when he wrote, "Current animal-park professionals have tremendous skills and passion, love all animals and are pivotal to creating the desperately needed shift in human attitudes toward other animals. However, until we can free them from our bondage, it is nearly impossible to shift attitudes toward sharing the Earth with them, sharing our resources and space, and giving them the respect they deserve."
Before closing, let's step back from wildlife for a moment to the domestic front where education is perhaps the road we need to take to help politicians break out of their inertia concerning appropriate funding for animal services in order to fulfill their responsibility to the communities they serve.

Lake County, Florida, like many municipalities across the country, needs to step up and properly fund it's animal services operation. Animal advocates are ". . . pressing county commissioners to fund a $36,000-a-year adoption position in hopes of placing more animals with rescue groups or in permanent homes. Such a worker would cut down on the cost of caring for animals and improve morale for those who already work at the shelter, they argue."

Commissioners need to be educated on how a properly funded operation will benefit their community and help save animals who only ask for a good home where they can share their love and support for a family. If not, we'll continue to see the needless waste of bodies piled high to make room for the next batch of animals whose fate literally rests with government officials.

As Shanna Steinberg, a teacher from Lady Lake, told Lake County Commissioners, "Unfortunately, at the end of the day they have to watch some of the animals they've come to love be put down. No one can watch these animals die each and every day without feeling a sense of hopelessness." Shouldn't we do all we can to save these animals and as a result detach from our keen sense of hopeless despair?

Euthanasia is down at the shelter ". . . since fiscal year 2008-09, when there were 2,037 dogs and 4,404 cats euthanized. In fiscal year 2012-13, 710 dogs and 2,896 cats were put to death." Despite the decline, that's still a lot of death at the shelter's doorstep.

"Chairman Jimmy Conner said commissioners must consider other needs — public safety is his top priority — instead of 'looking at this issue in isolation.'" What Chairman Conner, and many politicians in municipalities across America, doesn't seem to realize is how much of a hot button issue animals are and to what extreme of conscious animals matter to people in their communities.

Unfortunately, and yes tragically, we've seen this all too often where animal services agencies are low on the local government totem pole and treated as an almost afterthought when it comes to funding their operations; even as animals continue to be mistreated, neglected and die.

Enough of their excuses. It's time they take responsibility for their inaction and the hopelessness many of us continue to feel under their watch. Shame on you Lake County, and others, who repeatedly underfund domestic and wildlife animal services operations.

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