Quick victory for Ric O’Barry
OSLO, Norway––Responding on four days notice to a Japanese plan to capture four orcas in Norwegian waters, former Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry recently scored one of the biggest, quickest victories of his 30-year crusade against marine mammal captivity.
Yet mass media and even Internet animal rights forums scarcely noticed.
O’Barry was used to the silence. Arrested on Earth Day 1970 for trying to free two captive dolphins, he campaigned virtually alone for almost 20 years. Then the 1993 hit film Free Willy! and sequels made opposition to marine mammal captivity briefly the fastest growing and most lucrative branch of the animal rights movement.
In those days, the abrupt cancellation of a proposed orca capture might have won global note. But O’Barry was never a favorite of the Free Willy! crowd, having pointed out early in the saga that Keiko, the orca star of the Free Willy! films, was actually a poor candidate for successful release because of his advanced age and many years in captivity.
Keiko has been out of sight in an Icelandic sea pen since early September 1998. He has become a much stronger swimmer and driver, Kristin Gazlay reported on May 7 for Associated Press, and is soon to be given the run of a much larger holding area.
But despite all his months in a natural environment, Keiko still has not figured out how to feed himself, Gazlay wrote.
O’Barry learned from the Norwegian Federation for Animal Protection on March 9 that representatives of the new Nagoya Public Aquarium were due in Oslo on March 15 to meet with a variety of government officials. The Japanese reportedly hoped to hire notorious whaling and sealing fleet owner Steinar Bastensen to capture orcas, for display when the aquarium opens in 2001.
The Norwegian Federation for Animal Protection only learned of the Japanese plan that morning, from the Norwegian newspaper Nordlys. The plan apparently had strong support from the Norwegian ministry of trade.
But the ministeries of fisheries, the environment, and agriculture were said to be opposed not least because the capture effort would attract activist and media attention, raising the profile of the revived Norwegian whaling and sealing industries.
That gave the O’Barry and NFAP an opening. O’Barry arrived to help on March 13, with his bride of a few months, Danish journalist Helene Hesselgaar.
Rallying support via the Internet, O’Barry, Hesselgaar, and NFAP confronted the Japanese delegation two days later as they arrived at the Norwegian fisheries ministry office in Oslo for their first scheduled meeting.
The meeting ended with the plan suspended though O’Barry warns that the issue isn t over, that the Nagoya Public Aquarium may now seek orcas from Russian or Argentinian waters, and still has about 18 months to get them before the aquarium opens.
Apart from Keiko in his sea pen, the most evident effect of marine mammal freedom advocacy in the six years since Free Willy! debuted is that for about five years it siphoned funding and attention away from other marine mammal issues until a TV crew on May 17 shocked the world awake by videotaping eight Makah men in the act of killing a young gray whale.
Overshadowed in the interim were the annual Japanese escalation of research whaling; the unilateral Norwegian resumption of undisguised commercial whaling in 1994; the resumption of the Canadian offshore seal hunt in 1995; and the process by which the Makah resumed whaling.
Japan and Norway are now trying to use the Makah example to rationalize cultural whaling in their own coastal waters and they don t want any activists looking in their direction.
Cumulative attendance at captive marine mammal displays has only risen. If the anti-captivity movement had any effect at all on marine mammal exhibition, it was probably just to help accelerate a trend already long underway toward rerouting audience share from smaller and older facilities to those which can claim to be state-of-the-art.
Keiko s departure to Iceland last September upstaged the permanent closure one day later of the Depoe Bay Aquarium in Depoe Bay, Oregon. Owners John and Talley Woodmark said they couldn t afford the estimated $200,000 cost of renovating the 72-year-old aquarium to meet current legal requirements and public expectations.
The Woodmarks bought the aquarium in 1978, but gradually lost most of their audience to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, 20 miles south, opened in 1984. The Woodmarks began planning to leave the business in 1995, after the Oregon Coast Aquarium was selected as Keiko s temporary home between his removal from the substandard El Reino Aventura aquarium in Mexico City, where the first Free Willy! film was partly made, and his exodus to Iceland. Their harbor seal went to Sea World at Aurora, Ohio; their two sea lions went to the Indiana Children s Zoo in Fort Wayne; and the building itself is being turned into an art gallery.
Ironically, the seal and sea lions were temporarily kept at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, whose staff face lean times themselves after losing their star attration.
Keiko s former tank is now being renovated into a $4.8 million, three-tank series of recreations of reef, ocean bottom, and open sea habitats. It is doubtful that they will draw even half the crowd that Keiko did.
Depoe Bay was only one of at least three U.S. marine mammal exhibition venues that closed forever within the past 18 months:
The 14-year-old Maine Aquarium in Saco, out of business since mid-1997, was finally dismantled in January 1998, after relocating two harbor seals, four penguins, and a sea turtle, along with fish and invertebrates.
Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio, in March 1998 closed its 18-year-old Oceana Marine Life Stadium, after three dolphins died there in barely two years, and sent the last surviving dolphin to the Dolphin Research Center swim-with facility in Florida.
Knott s Berry Farm in May 1998 announced that it would discontinue dolphin and sea lion exhibits after the 1998 tourist season.
Marineland of Florida declared bankruptcy in April 1998 with debts of $9.7 million, and almost went under after closing to visitors in November 1998. It reopened on March 27, 1999, however, after reaching agreement with the USDA on a schedule for making improvements.
Built in 1937 as an underwater film studio, and opened to the public in 1940, Marineland is generally considered the first modern oceanarium. Older facilities, such as the former Depoe Bay Aquarium, built in 1926, exhibited animals in tanks, but lacked the performance venues characterizing Marineland and successors.
The Pittsburgh Zoo closed its sometimes controversial Aqua Zoo in September 1998, but is building a $12.5 million replacement, scheduled to open in April 2000.
New and improved
Offsetting the closures, all of small and old facilities, are a host of improvements and expansions at big and new facilities:
Marine World Africa USA, in Vallejo, California, enjoyed a 65% rise in attendance in 1998, after losing money for five years in a row and changing ownership. The new owners, Premier Parks Inc., operators of the Six Flags amusement park chain, retitled the facility Six Flags Marine World and put $40 million into new rides and site improvements. A 10-story roller coaster debuted in March 1999. The spending didn t particularly benefit the resident orcas, dolphins, walruses, and sea lions, but Premier Parks has denied that the addition of more non-animal attractions herald a shift away from animal-based entertainment.
The John Shedd Aquarium in Chicago on May 15 opened Caribbean Reef, a new exhibit that replaces a 27-year-old artificial reef. A $16.5 million Amazon exhibit and a $37.2 million Philippine coral reef exhibit are to open in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Built in 1930 and repeatedly expanded, Shedd was target of intensive protest, 1991-1994, after capturing beluga whales and Pacific whitesided dolphins from the wild to stock the marine mammal pavillion that was opened in 1992, but has not been targeted in recent years. The Shedd was the only U.S. institution to capture cetaceans other than stranding cases from the wild during the 1990s.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium opened a unique $5 million deep-sea exhibit in November 1998. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has never exhibited cetaceans, but California sea otters rescued from various distress situations remain the most popular animals in residence.
The 10-year-old Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi is undergoing an $11.5 million expansion to add a dolphin exhibit. Local dolphin tour boat operator Erv Strong has tried to build protest against the expansion, without notable success.
Colorado s Ocean Journey, costing $93 million to build, is to open to the public on June 21. Among the menagerie will be two California sea otters, three river otters, and two swimming Indonesian tigers, but no dolphins, in keeping with a 1993 promise to Robin Duxbury of Animal Rights Mobilization, whose No dolphins in Denver campaign was one of the few clear victories of the marine mammal freedom movement.
The Indianapolis Zoo in March 1999 announced a proposed $20 million expansion of its present Dolphin Pavillion and World of Waters into a new facility, to be called the Indiana State Aquarium. The old facilities were subject of numerous complaints and several public protests by the Animal and Environmental Defense Association between 1989 and 1994, especially following the 1992 death of a pseudorca named Tsuki, about a year after her import from Japan. Tsuki was reportedly captured during a drive fishery, in which most of her family were killed. The confrontations ceased in 1994, after AEDA blocked an attempt by the zoo to import four more pseudorcas from Japan.
The Vancouver Aquarium in October 1998 announced a $10 million expansion of facilities for fish and educational activity, but has not been able to overcome opposition orchestrated by the Coalition for No Whales in Captivity, Period and Lifeforce to expanding tanks occupied by beluga whales and an orca, who shares her space with a Pacific whitesided dolphin. The anti-captivity organizations argue that if the aquarium is allowed to give the whales more space, it may also acquire more whales. The aquarium the first ever to exhibit an orca had two orcas until last year, when the male died. The white-sided dolphin, their longtime companion, came to Vancouver with a reputation for pugnaciousness after clashing violently with dolphins at other facilities.
The often embattled 43-year-old Miami Seaquarium, actually located at Key Biscayne, was at last report still seeking ways and means of undertaking a $70 million expansion despite community opposition and courtroom defeats of attempts to overturn decisions of the Key Biscayne village council. The fight has gone on for nine years. Local activists remain hopeful that the Seaquarium will eventually be forced to close, and that the aging resident orca, Lolita, will be returned to her home waters in Puget Sound, where she was captured in 1973.
Meanwhile, on April 28, 1999, the Seaquarium began fundraising to build a new manatee hospital and rehabilitation facility not sounding much like an institution that anticipates folding soon.
Dolphins or manatees
Just being new is no guarantee of success. Opened in 1996, Underwater World at the Mall of America in Minneapolis flopped so severely that it spent most of 1998 enduring bankruptcy. The Camden Aquarium, in New Jersey, has struggled since opening in 1992, and the Florida State Aquarium in Tampa has lost money since opening in 1995.
Industry observers ascribe all three failures, in part, to the absence of charismatic marine mammals. Camden attendence has picked up in recent years, however, after the addition of penguins and exotic fish to the original focus on species native to New Jersey.
Adding marine mammals would be a bigger draw, but acquiring them is increasingly expensive. Bottlenose dolphins are plentifully available from captive sources, but building facilities that the public will accept as adequate tends to take more land, incur more debt, and create more public relations liabilities than many aquarium directors care to risk. Yet matters pertaining to parking and noise, as at Key Biscayne, seem to raise more enduring opposition than marine mammal captivity.
In addition, opposition to captivity is easily avoided if the animals acquired are manatees. Like bottlenose dolphins, captive manatees are readily available. Unlike dolphins, manatees don t perform, or even interact much with viewers. But they don t seem to mind intensive close-up viewing, they don t need as much space as dolphins, and most of those in captivity have scars from power boat propellers that clearly show why they cannot be released whereas even a captive-bred dolphin who has never known the open seas tends to evoke concerns about captivity with displays of speed and leaping ability.
A year-old manatee exhibit is among the more popular attractions at Sea World San Diego; the Cincinnati Zoo opened a manatee exhibit on May 22, and the Columbus Zoo plans to open a manatee exhibit on June 21.
As Lolita is among the longest surviving of all captive orcas, and may not be replaced, the increasing emphasis on manatees at the Miami Seaquarium, which has long had some, may reflect a growing feeling even among the executives of facilities traditionally focusing on cetaceans that manatees are the captive marine mammal of the future.
The most recently announced new facility which is to keep cetaceans is a proposed $5 million marine mammal hospital and rehabilitation unit, to be added to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida. Harbor Branch began fundraising for the project in April 1999, after housing recovering stranding victims for about a year in a temporary holding pool.
Harbor Branch got into keeping marine mammals on behalf of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in 1998, after Sea World at Orlando withdrew from a similar housing arrangement to protect its own animals from marine morbilivirus, a deadly disease related to German measles and canine distemper. Morbilivirus had been discovered in some wild dolphins off the Florida coast.
Neither the existing Harbor Branch facility nor the proposed hospital and rehabilitation unit are intended to become exhibition venues, but inevitably wildlife rehabilitation centers acquire some animals who cannot be returned to the wild. Usually these animals are eventually exhibited to help raise funds in support of the treatment programs.
Among the remaining older captive marine mammal facilities in North America, Marineland of Niagara Falls, Ontario, may have drawn more protest than any other in recent years. Not associated with Marineland of Florida, Marineland of Niagara Falls is a longtime reputed conduit for marine mammals coming to U.S. institutions from abroad. It also breeds marine mammals for sale to other aquariums. Owner John Holer has mostly successfully resisted activist pressure, but lost a round in August 1998 when the threat of a lawsuit from the Animal Alliance of Canada, the Bear Alliance, and Zoocheck Canada forced Marineland of Niagara Falls to relinquish two orphaned bear cubs, who were to be returned to the wild after rehabilitation by the Ontario Natural Resources Ministry.
The marine mammal freedom movement may be strongest in Europe, though the appeal of marine mammals seems undiminished: a three-week-old sea otter named Rosa was easily the top draw when the $70 million Oceanario de Lisboa aquarium opened in May 1998. The last British cetacean exhibition venues closed some years ago. Relatively few marine mammal exhibition sites persist on the European continent, and many of those with dolphins are among the older, smaller variety that are easily targeted for protest.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America, by contrast, marine mammals often appear in traveling circuses. O Barry has recently joined protests against such shows in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Peru, and Venezuela, as well as in Turkey. The traveling shows often originate from Russia or former Iron Curtain nations, typically featuring animals originally trained for use by the Soviet military.
Opposition to marine mammal exhibition led by Maneka Gandhi, now Indian minister of state for social welfare and empowerment, has kept dolphin shows out of India. But her opposition rose independently from the Free Willy! hoopla. Maneka has often stated that she favors zoos and aquariums if they do not take animals from the wild and can at least match the animal care standards and educational quality of the best zoos and aquariums she has visited in the U.S. and she has made plain that no facility now existing in India in her view even comes close.
One new Indian location, Dolphin City in Chennai, did import and exhibit three dolphins from Bulgaria during September and October 1998. They all died within less than a month, possibly due to transport shock.
The Asian economic crisis of the past two years has slowed the development of dolphinariums in several nations, but China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malay-sia, and Vietnam all reportedly still have one or more major marine mammal exhibition sites either under construction or in planning.
Asian development spells bad news for wildlife, Earth Island Institute marine mammal program associate Mark Berman declared in the Spring 1999 edition of the American SPCA magazine Animal Watch.
Yet before Americans and Canadians met Flipper and other live marine mammals at captive sites in North America, only a few dissident marine scientists opposed whaling and sealing; there was no public opposition to netting tuna on dolphin ; and there was very little opposition of any sort to bombing and strafing orcas and belugas a common U.S. and Canadian military practice until the 1970s, as the whales were generally believed to be competing with humans to catch fish.
Wild marine mammals, from clawed otters to great whales, are in desperate trouble, especially in southeast Asian waters. It may be that worse news than captivity for their species would be that charismatic representatives are never introduced to the public.
Quality exhibition venues, where the animals are well looked after, would be far preferable to sites like the one in Qingdao, China, where fireworks set off to mark the Chinese New Year on March 28 reportedly made nervous wrecks of four sea lions.
Yet it is noteworthy that the government-run Xinhua news service cited the trauma to the sea lions first in warning citizens that Several major Chinese cities have banned firecrackers, which have caused numerous deaths, injuries, and fires.
The sea lions also rated four paragraphs more prominence than the single-sentence mention that Beijing authorities have continued to ban firecrackers from the capital.
What that means, in official Chinese media parlance, is that authorities trying to curb a public hazard think citizens will respond more positively on behalf of four formerly unfamiliar but now popular exotic animals, than just to a government order which is, nonetheless, held in reserve.
Not long ago, government orders came first. Animals didn’t rate attention at all.