Political Animals

Once again, a government body is deciding whether its local zoo or aquarium should be permitted to keep a species of animal. Last year, it was the Toronto City Council weighing in on the issue of elephants at the Toronto Zoo. The Council, made up of people with no particular expertise in the matter, voted to get out of the elephant business and send the Zoo’s three African elephants to a sanctuary in California.
More recently, two members of the U.S. House from California have proposed a federal study on the impact of captivity on large marine animals, while the California State Assembly was unable to decide on proposed a bill to end killer-whale shows and discontinue orca captivity in the State.
Now, the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation is holding public hearings on the pros and cons of having captive cetaceans (whales) at the Vancouver Aquarium. The aquarium not only wants to continue keeping whales and dolphins, it also plans to invest $100 million dollars in facility upgrades. According to media reports, more than a hundred people have signed up to speak in what will no doubt be a series of emotionally charged public forums. No less an authority than Jane Goodall has already sent a letter to the Park Board in opposition to the Aquarium’s position. It is hard to argue with the opposition. Whales in the wild roam hundreds of square miles of open ocean. How can we possibly justify keeping them in swimming pools the size of an average suburban yard?
But, if we pass laws prohibiting the keeping of whales, what will happen to those animals that are rescued and cannot survive in the wild? Are we really saying they are better off dead as some zoo & aquarium critics say? And who will be making those decisions, zoo and aquarium professionals, animal rights activists who oppose zoos and aquariums altogether, or politicians who have no expertise whatsoever? Who are the real winners and losers in these public, political debates about animals in captivity? At some point, in all the heated rhetoric, you have to wonder if it is still about the animals.

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