Aquarium and zoo industry people don’t often get together with animal protection groups to talk realistically about the future. But it happened when Ron Kagan, Director of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, invited leaders from all animal-related interests and all parts of the world to discuss issues of ethics and the future of zoos and aquariums.

The panel discussion in this video included Lori Marino of the Whale Sanctuary ProjectJohn Racanelli of the National Aquarium in BaltimoreCourtney Vailof the Lightkeepers Foundation, and Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare institute. Among the issues they discussed (along with their timings):

2:17 – Lori Marino talks about how the large and complex brains of whales and dolphins, with their extraordinary cognitive abilities and self-awareness, make them especially vulnerable to the stress of living in concrete tanks. They know who they are and they are fully sensitive to the artificial circumstances they are forced to live under.

3:35 – Naomi Rose and John Racanellifollow up by saying that certain marine animals can do quite well in captive habitats, including real kelp forests, that replicate their natural environments. By contrast, marine mammals do particularly badly since it’s impossible to replicate a natural environment.

8:10 – Racanelli says that while the very hygienic conditions of a concrete tank may keep whales and dolphins alive longer, it’s unnatural and not much of a life. There are many more variables in a sanctuary than in a sterile tank and that means more risk but a better life. Sterile, ‘clean’ tanks are not necessarily good for the animals. They need to be exposed to different elements.

Right now, in fact, the Aquarium is introducing some of those variables, like letting algae grow in the tanks (to the surprise of visitors!) to help the dolphins acclimatize to what will be their new surroundings.

9:32 – Courtney Vail notes that there are about 500 bottlenose dolphins at marine parks and aquariums in the United States. They’re not all going to be able to be moved to sanctuaries soon, and so the animal protection community and the zoo industry have an obligation to work together to come up with workable solutions for them.

13:48 – The panel discusses the “slippery slope” issue. (If it’s whales and dolphins today, will it be fish next and then shrimp, and then all the aquariums are closed?) The whole panel agrees that this is not the big issue it’s often made out to be. Racanelli notes that some animals do well in aquarium habitats. (Check out what he says about Calypso the sea turtle.) On the other hand, we’re learning a lot about octopuses that leads us to believe they don’t do well in a captive environment.

Marino adds that when we keep the needs of the animals as the priority, questions about who needs to be in a sanctuary situation begin to answer themselves. And Rose says she’s been very heartened, all through the conference, to hear the same kinds of animal welfare discussions going on within the zoo community that she’s more used to hearing in the animal protection world.

22:23 – The discussion moves on to whether you can do the kind of research at a sanctuary that’s typically done in close captivity. Marino says you can do very good observational research, which is critical, in any case, to keeping them healthy and helping others to create sanctuaries successfully. But, at a sanctuary it’s the nonhuman animals who come first, and so their wellbeing, not their availability for research, is the priority.

29:03 – One area in which the zoo and animal protection communities are working hand-in-hand is in the last-ditch attempt to save the vaquita porpoises from total extinction in the Gulf of California thanks to illegal gill nets. Rose talks about how everyone is doing all they can, but she’s not optimistic about there being a good outcome.

44:15 – In closing comments, Racanelli says that knowing what we know about their cognitive capacities, it’s “unconscionable” to continue to collect whales and dolphins from the wild (like at the horrific Taiji dolphin hunt, just getting underway again at this time of year).

Marino says that the wider purpose of sanctuaries is to enable us to change how we relate to nonhuman animals, and to give them back something of what’s been taken away from them.

Rose focuses on the need for practical solutions that work for all parties: the whales, the general public and the zoo and aquarium industries.

And Vail says that while there are fears that the zoo and aquarium industries will become obsolete, there is a critical role for them. She says we can work collaboratively and that none of us needs to be afraid to speak our mind.

This post was originally published on the Whale Project Sanctuary’s website.

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