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.

Georgia Aquarium Seeks Permit to Import Wild-Caught Belugas

Cover photo: In a beluga whale transport similar to what the Georgia Aquarium plans, four belugas are being transported from Russia to China’s Huangzhou Polar Ocean Park for a life in captivity.

Next month, a federal government agency will decide whether the Georgia Aquarium should be granted a permit to bring 18 beluga whales from Russian waters to the United States. The aquarium, which is based in Atlanta and is the largest in the nation, captured most of the whales 12-24 months ago in the Sea of Okhotsk and is holding them at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Russian Black Sea coast.

belugas santa-091612The Georgia Aquarium plans to keep some of these wild-caught belugas for themselves and to distribute the rest among three SeaWorld facilities, the Shedd Aquarium and, eventually, the Mystic Aquarium.

The last time a U.S. aquarium took marine mammals directly from the oceans was in 1993, when the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago captured some Pacific white-sided dolphins from California waters, setting off a public outcry that resulted in U.S. marine parks deciding not to take any more marine mammals from the wild for their displays.

(For a video of a similar capture by another country in 1999 go here.)

But this year, on June 15th, when the Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to bring those 18 belugas to this country, that tacit agreement was shattered. If the Georgia Aquarium gets its way and receives a permit, this will open the floodgates for marine zoos, circuses, parks and aquariums to capture belugas from Alaska, dolphins from the Atlantic, and whales from the Pacific.

Since this is a controversial issue, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is in charge of giving such permits, opened a period of public commentary on this issue which ends on October 29th. A public hearing in Washington DC is scheduled for October 12th, and Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center expects to be present.

And Kimmela is working to bring the voice of the scientific community to this issue by collaborating with Humane Society International (HSI) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) to create a Scientists’ Statement outlining the scientific reasons for opposing this import application and undersigned by some of the most prominent scientists in the world.

Last week, Dr. Naomi Rose, Senior Scientist of HSI, was in Atlanta to join Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center in a public presentation about the beluga issue at Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

Kimmela is also assisting local animal rights groups in Georgia by providing them with relevant peer-reviewed papers on belugas and the claims of the captivity industry and disseminating talking points to help these groups make their case. These materials include:

A critical evaluation, by Dr. Marino and other scientists, of educational claims made by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums: “Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoos and Aquariums Study.”

A study of the brain of beluga whales by Dr. Marino and other scientists: Anatomy and Three-Dimensional Reconstructions of the Brain of the White Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) from Magnetic Resonance Images.

A historical record and inventory of beluga whales in captivity.

A comprehensive list of talking points and background by Dr. Naomi Rose of Humane Society International.

Kimmela also provided scientific background for a series of posts, Barnum and Belugas, exploring our relationship over the centuries with belugas by board member Michael Mountain on his Earth in Transition website.

And this post by Elizabeth Batt offers more background into the beluga captivity industry.

The government agency NOAA invites your comments on its website page devoted to the Georgia Aquarium’s application for a permit. The public hearing will be held on October 12, 2012, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the NOAA Silver Spring Metro Center Complex, NOAA Science Center, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

Why Kimmela

At the end of this academic year I will be leaving my 18-year position as a Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University, and embarking on a new path as Executive Director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

But I am not leaving academic research and scholarship behind. Rather, I am refocusing my research and expertise on creating a new path that combines science and animal advocacy. I’m always mindful of how privileged I’ve been to be able to pursue a successful research career indulging my curiosity about the world and, especially, the other animals.

That research has focused on the evolution of intelligence, brains, and self-awareness in other animals – in particular dolphins and primates. I worked with chimpanzees at Yerkes Research Center and learned that human language is not necessary for the deepest kinds of communication. I spent months amongst the carrion beetles in the dusty basement of The National Museum of Natural History measuring skulls of whales who died over 30 million years ago. And I’ve even conjectured about intelligence on other planets at the SETI Institute with the most open-minded (and nicest) community of scientists in the world.

There is no inherent conflict between being a scientist and an advocate – just an imaginary one we’ve created.But throughout that time I kept feeling the pull of a deep connection with the other animals that was the basis for my rejecting an offer to the prestigious Ph.D. program in Neuroscience at Princeton University after college and that would have involved vivisecting cats. It was why I was more invested in telling people about the infamous “rattlesnake roundups” in the Texas desert than I was about my work at the Johnson Space Center testing astronauts who had flown in space. And it was why, as a PhD candidate at SUNY-Albany, I had frequent tussles with faculty and fellow graduate students who I did not think took the issue of animal experimentation seriously enough.

But these “intrusions of conscience” more often than not took a back seat to building my scientific reputation during that period. You see, the academic community, particularly in the natural sciences, often ridicules and ostracizes not only students but even established scientists who take advocacy positions. I saw colleagues who questioned the ethics of their research being kept out of the running for grant support, and students who work in labs with other animals being discouraged, even cautioned, when they express concern. Advocacy, it was “handed down from the mountaintop”, is anathema to the scientific enterprise. I didn’t realize at the time that there is no inherent conflict between being a scientist and an advocate – just an imaginary one we’ve created. I also didn’t realize that being a scientist makes one a very powerful advocate as well.

Then, in 2001 Diana Reiss and I published a groundbreaking paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which we demonstrated, for the first time, that dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors and thus have a sense of self-awareness that’s similar to our own. Our two research subjects were young bottlenose dolphins, Presley and Tab, who were held at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn. This study challenged me to think at a deeper level than ever before about the ethical implications of my work as I began to realize that such highly intelligent, self-aware beings must suffer tremendously in captivity.

Shortly after that, two things happened that created the tipping point for me. First, I learned how devastating captivity is for dolphins and whales firsthand when Presley and Tab were transferred to other facilities and died soon after.

Second, I saw an online video clip of the annual Japanese dolphin hunts in which thousands of dolphins and whales are subject to an unspeakable death. The violence took my breath away. At the same time I also learned about the strong connection between marine mammal public displays and the hunts. The dolphins who are taken captive for these entertainment parks fetch a very high price, creating a very high incentive for the hunters to continue their yearly onslaught. As a research scientist I could no longer participate in the use of other animals in captivity. I had an obligation to use my expertise to advocate for them.

Now, for the first time, I really understood and could not ignore the implications of my work beyond the science. This was about grasping the meaning of my findings for the lives of these animals. As a research scientist I could no longer participate in the use of other animals in captivity. And I realized that I had an obligation to use my expertise to advocate for them. And in those realizations, the seeds of The Kimmela Center were being planted.

During the past 10 years I came to realize that those of us who study animals arguably bear the most responsibility for animal advocacy because we know the most about the subjects of our study and can be the most effective in advocating for them. Now, more than ever, we need to bring scholarship and science to bear on helping them.

The Kimmela Center is distinctive because it focuses on bringing the power of academic peer-reviewed science, knowledge and professional credibility to animal advocacy, and on creating a mainstreamed professional path for animal advocacy in academia. Together, we will make the vital connection between science and animal advocacy that is key to empowering all who wish to transform our relationships with the other animals.