I considered writing these posts for a long time, but I think now's my chance.
There was a documentary released in 2013 called BLACKFISH. I've touched on it briefly here on the blog, and chances are you've either seen it or heard of it by now. Since the release of BLACKFISH, there has been a new wave of mainstream activism that is anti-zoo in general, and anti-SeaWorld in particular.
This is extremely troubling to me. Zoos can be a sensitive subject for many people, and even for me, admittedly. As a child, I wasn't quite able to rationalize them. But having worked for many reputable facilities in my career (including SeaWorld), I can now say with complete confidence that the world very much needs zoos. Responsible zoos, at least. And yes, that includes SeaWorld. I am not necessarily pro- or anti- SeaWorld specifically, but I am incredibly pro-responsible zoo. Responsible zoos need all the help they can get.
This week I'll be putting up a few different posts explaining why. This is not an anti-BLACKFISH post-- I will NOT be refuting the film directly, as there are plenty of excellent posts out there doing so, much more eloquently and succinctly than I could ever hope to. (One of the links above is SeaWorld's own list of erroneous BLACKFISH points. I see the conflict of interest there, however, as a former employee who worked closely with the killer whale trainers and was also involved in animal care, I do not see anything in there that I don't believe to be the truth).
Instead, I hope to explain the other side. Plain and simple, if you've bought into the bias that BLACKFISH has to offer, you do not know the whole story. You simply can't watch a 1.5 hour documentary, search the internet for facts that support it, and consider yourself to be an expert. I don't mean this accusingly. I'm hoping if you're reading this that you want to know more. I'm hoping I can still change your mind.
We need zoos. Believe it or not, we need SeaWorld.
I will be turning off comments on these posts because I don't have the time or wherewithal to deal with trolls et al. Individuals who want to know more or have genuine questions can feel free to email me directly.
So. Today, we'll start off with a little zoo history, and a couple points that will be important this week.
The past, the present, and the future
Zoos originally began as the menageries of the wealthy and powerful. Kings and nobles would collect and display exotic or rare animals as a show of their reach (and riches). As the centuries went on, zoos became less private and more public. Those same kings and nobles wanted not only their compatriots but also their subjects to be awed by the collections of animals they maintained. Eventually, someone got the bright idea to charge for admission, and the modern-day independently owned zoo was born.
The thing about zoos is that they are ever-improving. From literal cages with bars to the most naturalistic habitats we are capable of building. From chains, whips, and chairs to positive reinforcement and even hands-off care. The people who work in zoos in our modern world are there because they care about their animals. There's always more we can do to improve, but even in the last forty years, we've come a long, long way.
The future of zookeeping is either grim or hopeful. We stand at a crossroads right now with the public opinion swaying in the breeze. But if zoos fall victim to the hype, we stand to lose so much (more on this later).
What do I mean by a responsible zoo?
Generally speaking, a responsible zoo is one that fosters education and, more importantly, conservation of the animals in its care. Obviously the care they take of their animals is paramount, but as an outsider, it can be hard to tell whether animal care is "good" or not. Much of what goes on daily in a zoo can easily be mistaken for either good or bad care, and unless you're in the field it can be hard to tell the difference. So, the easiest way to tell as an outsider is to look for education AND conservation programs. The zoo should offer some form of both of these.
In the United States, the best way to tell if a zoo is following animal care guidelines is to look for accreditation by the AZA and the USDA. Zoos that carry these accreditations will usually say so on their websites. (Note: this does not apply to very small operations, like exotic animal rescues and nature centers. There, you will have to use your best judgment, but you can look for education and conservation again as a clue).
Okay, so, what is conservation, exactly?
Conservation means the zoo is interested in helping the environment, specifically the animal species in their care. Many zoos participate in the Species Survival Plan (or SSP) for various endangered species. An SSP is basically a studbook for all the zoo-kept animals of a particular species. That way, we can breed them responsibly to ensure the best genetic diversity.
But conservation can also be closer to home. SeaWorld, for example, does local marine mammal rescue, rehabilitation, and release. They also have a facility designed entirely to help with oiled wildlife recovery during catastrophic oil spills. I was fortunate enough in my time there to be trained in the recovery of oiled birds, which is an undertaking that requires tons of manpower and resources, and was done in addition to our regular keeper duties, all behind the scenes.
And what about education?
Okay look. I know you probably know what education is. But at a zoo, the things you should look for are guided tours, signage at exhibits, and public presentations.
Stay tuned this week. Tomorrow: why zoos are so important to the environment.