I’ve spent my entire 37-year career in the field of conservation. I can count many accomplishments, but few make me prouder than those opportunities when I’ve been able to support the protection of places, great and small, but especially the areas that stand apart as ecosystems unto themselves — like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. These are amazing places, increasingly rare in a world where human populations are continuing to expand in numbers and affluence. They are increasingly hard to protect, as illustrated in our government’s current headlong rush to allow oil developers into the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain; its biological heart.
If we are going to protect these great places, providing homes for the creatures, great and small, that depend upon them, we must nurture a public that sees the protection of these places as relevant and essential. This is challenging in a world where people are rapidly evolving into urban and indoor creatures. Here in the US, 82% live in and around cities, and we spend 93% of our time indoors. Will we spend our time and money and cast our votes to support conservation of wildlife and places from which we are increasingly disconnected? Unfortunately, growing evidence seems to indicate the answer is “No.”
We need to do better.
A bright spot – and an opportunity to create more engaged, aware and actively conservation-minded citizens – is the community of purposeful, mission-driven, zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). More than 200 million guests will visit AZA members in the coming year. Yes, they will have fun! Moreover, they will leave with a better understanding, empathy, and inspiration for the animals they see and the need to protect their wild brethren and their homes.
There is controversy about keeping animals in human-care — some like to say, “captivity.” That controversy is sharpest around animals that are large, social, emotional, and highly mobile, like elephants, great apes, and cetaceans (especially whales, dolphins and porpoises). However, humans are tactile animals, meaning we connect with things we can see, smell, touch, and sense. That’s as true for dolphins and whales, as it is for tigers, tortoises, or tadpoles.
It is also why I stand squarely with AZA’s accredited members caring for cetaceans. Sure, it’s amazing to see wild dolphins or killer whales, but most people will never have that opportunity. And honestly, we don’t want 7.5 billion people rushing out into nature to watch whales and dolphins. And they don’t have to, because they can see them in responsibly-managed facilities, like SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Texas State Aquarium, where they receive exceptional care, while also serving as amazing ambassadors for wild nature.
Recently, there has been an increase in the debate over the importance and value of having these animals in human care and on display. Cetaceans have been in the care of AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos for more than 50 years. During that time, we have made great strides in understanding the natural history, reproduction, care and behavior of these incredible animals. In turn, these facilities work hand-in-hand with government, non-profits, and other partners to advance ocean conservation and research projects to benefit these animals in the wild.
Most certainly, we must provide the very best standard of care. We must be dedicated to continual improvement. And at AZA, we are. If you have any doubt, the best way to judge is to see it for yourself. Visit! Talk to a keeper or trainer or aquarist. Ask them hard questions. I’m confident that they will have good answers for you. Answers that address the care they provide, and answers about the benefits of sharing these animals with their guests.
At a time when we need to be uniting to help save these magnificent creatures, we seem to be dividing ourselves.
It was disappointing last week when the British travel agency, Thomas Cook, announced that beginning in 2019 they would no longer sell tickets to SeaWorld. SeaWorld is a member and leader in the AZA community, and a long-time and established leader in marine mammal care, conservation, research, and rescue. Thomas Cook’s decision came on the heels of SeaWorld receiving a 100% passing score, based on the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism. So, SeaWorld met their animal welfare standards, and Thomas Cook is penalizing them nonetheless.
If you want to see a more responsible travel agency position, take a look at the animal welfare policy of Attraction Tickets Direct (ATD), which is also an ABTA member: https://www.attractiontickets.com/en/animal-welfare
ATD actually follows the ABTA welfare assessment standards and also recognizes the value of rigorous accreditations, like AZA’s.
Previous to joining AZA, I served as Director of the world’s largest wildlife conservation organization — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I know how people would react if I acted like Thomas Cook did with SeaWorld, ignoring science and standards, and instead, making an arbitrary and intolerant decision. They would be outraged!
Today, our world is too full with intolerance and outrage, so I simply would ask that Thomas Cook revisit their decision. If you think SeaWorld can do more and better, try a novel approach — ask them.
Trying to punish them economically may feel righteous, but it will target the thing that most needs our help — wild marine mammals. We need a connection to nature and inspiration to save it; we get that when we visit places like SeaWorld. We need great institutions — government, non-profit and for-profit — with cultures of service and social responsibility; SeaWorld has a proven record. We need concerned citizens to unite; there are too few of us; let’s not divide and conquer ourselves.
Thomas Cook, you made the wrong choice! Please reconsider. Let’s join together and help create a world where all people respect, value and conserve wildlife and wild places. That’s our vision!