The tragic killing of a Sea World employee by an orca recently has inspired a lot of soul-searching over whether or not keeping large cetaceans like orcas and dolphins in captivity can really be justified.
Florida has a long history of this kind of thing: the state’s first theme park, Marineland, practically invented the trained dolphin show. Back then, of course, the American public’s view of the proper treatment of animals was very different. The average person didn’t see anything wrong with capturing wild animals and forcing them to do tricks, much as previous generations had seen nothing wrong with owning other human beings as slaves.
Today, things are different. Now we know that wild cetaceans are highly social creatures with a range of thousands of miles. Ripping them away from their social group and trapping them inside a tank, even one as large as the tank inside EPCOT’s Seas pavilion, would be like sentencing a human to solitary confinement in a cell the size of a phone booth. I grew up in St. Augustine, Florida, near Marineland. An family friend who once worked there told us about a female dolphin at the park who repeatedly became pregnant, then drowned her calf when it was born. She was eventually tagged and released back into the wild. They kept track of her, and when she became pregnant again she did not drown the newborn. Had she killed the previous calves because she didn’t want them to spend their lives in captivity? Or had her captive condition induced some kind of mental disorder that went away once she was restored to her natural habitat? No one knows for sure, but it seems obvious that captivity did not agree with her.
Sometimes, there are good reasons to keep animals in captivity of some sort. Ocala’s Silver Springs park, for example, has an area devoted to wild birds who were injured and are no longer able to survive in their natural habitat. Other animals are endangered by poaching or the destruction of their habitats, and the zoos that keep them do their best to give them as close to a natural environment as possible, while also educating visitors about the challenges the animals face. Disney’s Animal Kingdom does a good job in this regard.
Sometimes, though, we make the mistake of anthropomorphizing animals. Dolphins mouths are fixed in what to us looks like a permanent smile, so we assume they’re happy. But the next time you’re at EPCOT, watch the dolphins as they rapidly circle the tank and ask yourself, are they really smiling? Or is their confinement driving them mad?