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Goodbye, Tilikum

by Sonia Kulkarni

Photography Courtesy of Facebook

National parks and aquariums are where we go to learn more about the world around us and where we get to observe nature up close and personal. But, there is a critical distinction between the two. National parks are protected areas of land where the animals get to roam free, while aquariums are home to marine animals that are taken from their habitat in the wild—though it is often to rescue them from injuries or unsafe conditions.

While most aquariums do support conservation, there is questionable merit in taking dolphins, fish and sharks away from their natural habitat for the sake of educational or entertainment purposes. One of the most infamous examples is Sea World.

Sea World, located in Orlando, Florida, had minimal incidents prior to acquiring an orca named Tilikum. After a few deaths and some nearly fatal injuries, Tilikum was locked away in a small tank. Experts point to the negligence of these sea creatures as a driving factor as to why they aggressively act out. While Sea World and other advocates may want to place blame on the orca, the blame lies with the company and trainers for not properly providing for the animals’ social and physical needs. Even if the animals are use to their habitat, it is still not their natural home. Gabriela Cowperthwaite put together a documentary titled Blackfish to help educate the public on aquariums.

“I can’t say this was an easy film to make,” Cowperthwaite writes in her biography. “For two years we were bombarded with terrifying facts, autopsy reports, sobbing interviewees and unhappy animals—a place diametrically opposite to its carefully refined image. But as I moved forward, I knew that we had a chance to fix some things that had come unraveled along the way. And that all I had to do was tell the truth.”

Although Blackfish was released almost four years ago, there is still a long way to go in terms of helping the world’s captive animals. One would think that after numerous deaths and several nearly fatal injuries that aquariums and entertainment companies would stop holding such large animals captive. However, there are still several aquariums out there that promote taking marine animals away from their natural habitat for ‘educational’ purposes.

While I agree that most aquariums do a great job at educating young kids about our oceans, there should be a more defined (and universally understood) line between entertainment and education. Even if the marine animal is very docile, the stress of having an outsider in a contained space with them in unneeded. Despite living in captivity, these are not domesticated animals and therefore should not be subject to excessive human contact.

There are several aquariums that only feature currently rehabilitating animals. For example, the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida hosts all of the manatees and sea turtles that they have recused throughout the aquarium. Next to their tank is a small description on their injury, how visitors can help and whether or not the animal will be able to return to their home.

There are other ways to learn more about the oceans aside from visiting aquariums. Planet Earth documentaries feature different parts of the world and their respective ecosystems, which simultaneously entertains and educates people without completely interrupting an animal’s natural habitat. These documentaries are the better alternative as they show the animal as it is meant to live rather than swimming in circles in a tank. Although you aren’t as close to the animal with these films, you are still learning.

While aquariums are great tools for educational and conservation purposes, there are still steps to be taken to ensure that the line between education and entertainment does not get crossed.

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