This editorial originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on November 14, 2005.
The Georgia Aquarium will have its grand opening on November 23. Highlights include two whale sharks, the only exhibit of this species in North America, and its newest acquisitions, five beluga whales, two of whom were originally captured from the wild in Russia. All this is causing great excitement in Atlanta, and the aquarium is enjoying much unfettered fanfare in the press. Articles portray it as innovative and a boon to tourism. And that isn't being denied here.
What the publicity machine has forgotten to mention, however, is that the exhibition of marine mammals, particularly whales and dolphins (also known as cetaceans), is increasingly controversial worldwide. Internationally, these animals are still routinely captured from the wild, often using inhumane methods and without adequate management oversight. This has led a growing number of governments and international bodies to reconsider their previously unquestioning support for live cetacean exhibits.
The Atlanta aquarium is also bucking a national trend. New aquariums in the United States have rejected proposals for cetacean exhibits since the early 1990s and only two existing facilities have added them. In the same period, at least 10 cetacean exhibits have closed. The Georgia Aquarium thus becomes not only the largest aquarium, but the first new American facility in more than a decade to display these animals.
Why is this a problem? If it's OK to exhibit fish, why not whales? Therein lies the crux of the matter—whales and dolphins aren't fish, they are mammals. They are large, intelligent, long-lived, socially complex mammals, predators who often hunt cooperatively and are capable of swimming a hundred miles in a day.
Such species, according to a recent analysis published in the science journal Nature, are apparently inherently unsuited to display in zoos and aquariums, because too much of their behavior is compromised by confinement. In captivity, they are prone to neurotic behaviors—such as swimming in endless circles—and they do not breed well.
The conventional wisdom, though, has always been that the public display of marine mammals is educational. Therefore, the Georgia Aquarium might counter the results of the Nature article by saying that despite the potential stressors faced in confinement, its belugas are ambassadors for their species, teaching people who might otherwise never see this unusual mammal in the wild to care about conservation.
It is easy to argue, however, that it isn't particularly educational to view belugas in indoor tanks that have little in common with the vast Arctic reaches of their natural habitat. That such display is educational has simply been repeated endlessly over the decades, perhaps since P.T. Barnum first put a beluga in a small box filled with water as a side show exhibit. The beluga, of course, died soon after.
In fact, no one has looked objectively to assess the educational value of marine mammal exhibits. Just as in "The Emperor's New Clothes," observers don't examine the "facts" too closely. Public display facilities ask their visitors if they find wildlife exhibits to be educational, and the visitors, satisfied after an enjoyable day watching animals behind Plexiglas, respond with an enthusiastic "Yes!" But the pollsters rarely ask, "So, what did you learn at the aquarium today?"
The Georgia Aquarium is a state-of-the-art facility, and its belugas and other novel exhibits, like the whale sharks, will get the best care possible in captivity. But the question more people in the world are beginning to ask—and more members of the media should be asking—is: "Is this 'best' care good enough?"
Barnum had an excuse for his cruelty—he didn't know any better and he was just out for a buck. This comparison to a 19th-century huckster will undoubtedly offend the Georgia Aquarium, but the fact remains that although the box is definitely bigger and better designed, compared to the ocean and from the perspective of an intelligent mammal, it is still just a box.
Naomi Rose, PhD, is the marine mammal scientist for Humane Society International.