The Georgia Aquarium Plays the Education Card … Again

Last week the Orlando Sentinel published an article on the very contentious issue of The Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld and other aquariums trying to import wild-caught beluga whales for public display.

There has been a lot of focus on the Georgia Aquarium because it is the hub of this effort, but I am glad to see that attention and criticism is also being turned to SeaWorld and the other players in this exploit.

Yesterday, the New York Times published a piece on the strong opposition to the import application which featured objections from the scientific community, including myself and my colleague, Hal Whitehead, and even criticism of taking whales from the wild from Robert Michaud, the scientist who was hired by the Georgia Aquarium to coordinate research into the beluga populations in the Sea of Okhotsk.

There is no evidence that public displays of dolphins and whales are educational in any sense of the word.

This is the first time since 1993 that a U.S. marine park has sought to acquire wild-caught whales for public display. When asked to justify this major change in policy, the Georgia Aquarium replied that it is “to promote conservation and education.” They play the education card regularly because the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requires public displays of marine mammals to be educational. They also know that education is an unassailable objective, so all zoos, marine parks and aquariums pay lip service to it.

My analyses of the educational claims of the marine mammal captivity industry and specific claims made by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are quite well-known by now. You can read my co-authored article “Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors?” here. In a nutshell, there is absolutely no evidence that public displays of dolphins and whales (or other animals) are educational in any sense of the word.

Saying that something is educational is not the same as something actually being educational. And this was the focus of my testimony to Congress at the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife in 2010 on the educational claims of the marine mammal captivity industry.

In my testimony, I questioned whether the marine mammal captivity industry is meeting the educational requirements of the MMPA and argued that in order for any program to meet even minimum standards for education or conservation, two straightforward criteria must be met:

First, the information provided about the animals on display and their natural history, biology, behavior and conservation status must be accurate. Second, there must be evidence, based on valid outcome measures, that visits to these facilities serve an educational or conservation purpose.

To address the accuracy question, I evaluated the online public information provided by three major organizations – the AZA, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, and SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. These three organizations collectively represent more than 60 percent of the zoos and aquariums in the U.S. holding marine mammals on public display.

These organizations do not meet even the minimal standard that information supplied to the public must be accurate.I found that these organizations misrepresented information about the welfare and intelligence of marine mammals with boldly inaccurate assertions and biased half-truths. Their claims that marine mammals live longer in captivity than in the wild, that dolphins are average in intelligence, and that marine mammals do not become stressed in captivity are examples of the incorrect information they feed to the public to present a benign picture of marine mammal captivity. Therefore, with regard to the first criterion, these organizations do not meet even the minimal standard that information supplied to the public must be accurate.

As to the question of whether there are any objective outcome measures that demonstrate learning and attitude change in visitors to marine mammal displays, I found absolutely no evidence to support this claim. The marine mammal captivity industry depends on dubious studies and irrelevant visitor polls to make their claims. The one peer-reviewed study published by the AZA was deeply flawed and could not provide any support for the education claim.

My general conclusion from all the available evidence was that the marine mammal captivity industry has fallen far short of their obligation to educate the public. (My full testimony is here, and you can view the video of the full session here.)

On October 12th I will be presenting these conclusions at the public hearing to be held by NOAA at the Silver Spring Metro Center Complex, NOAA Science Center, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

10 Replies to “The Georgia Aquarium Plays the Education Card … Again”

  1. Our comments against Georgia Aquarium’s/SeaWorld’s actions will put more pressure on the animal entertainment industry and I truly hope they will put an end to this import! Thank you for raising more awareness about this issue, Dr. Marino. Great article and great information.

  2. Andrew Randrianasulu October 10, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    It will be very interesting to see captivity industry’s representatives reaction at very simple question: if they truly did excellent educational service to society – WHY cetaceans still not have their sanctuary option, written in law text and into everyday life? You know, i see cetacean sanctuary slightly different, compared to other animal sanctuaries – but main idea still here – place dedicated to animals, with built-in safeguards against greed and exploitation. Yes, this doesn’t cover ‘big conservation’ – but anyone who was educated about animals can only wish them natural {don’t confuse with naturally-looking!} place, where they can express themselves. Yet, we see circus and blue empty tanks. Something not clicking …. {try #2, due to some server error}

  3. Thank you Lori Marino! Sense at last.

  4. Well thought out ideas and common sense don’t seem to make much difference when it comes to the AZA and any of the captive industry organizations. Although your research is sound, this is a political and dollar issue. How can we fight against the huge money machines? Thanks for all your efforts, Lori. I wish you all well at the hearing. May the voice of reason be strong!

  5. Laurice Dee, Ph.D. October 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Exploiting marine mammals by making them perform unnatural tricks for their dead-fish meals is not educational by any means. Keeping marine mammals at captive facilities and having them suffer from all kinds of physical and psychological problems – mainly caused by extreme stress – do not pose any educational value to the public, either. All cetaceans are meant to live in the open waters – oceans, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water – where they live their lives so very naturally. Observing and studying cetaceans in their natural habitats would make for a great educational experience for anyone!

    1. Janice Gunderson February 2, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      I feel much the same regarding any captive animals and birds. There are exceptions such as breeding for re-introduction programs, and rehabilitating injured creatures.

  6. I am so grateful that someone with your skill and knowledge is working on the side of the animals. Thank you for everything you are doing.
    May the time come soon when all animals will be released from these prisons and stop being slaves for profit.

  7. Seems like the only thing being taught to the next generation is it’s OK to exploitation non-humans for our entertainment. Will we ever EVOLVE ?

  8. The traditional Hollywood companies can no longer dictate just whatthe ticker buyers would like or will get as they have historically. If you add to that distribution on the web and, media, web pages, from gossip to entire motion pictures. It’s actually a brand new environment. Some of it fantastic, some not.

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