Since last week’s tragedy in Orlando, experts and the general public have been weighing in on two sides of the question of captivity of marine mammals—especially Orcas, like the 12,000-lb. behemoth that killed his trainer.
Animal rights advocates point out that for an Orca, life as an exhibit in a tank, regardless of how large a tank, would be like life in a bathtub for a human being. Even well fed and entertained, the person in a tub couldn’t help but get cramped, bored, and more than a little neurotic. Other critics of Sea World-style extravaganzas have focused on the inherent dangers of working with animals like Tillicum, the killer whale at the center of the controversy.
On the other side of the issue, marine scientists point out that studying captive animals is sometimes the only way humans have of learning about them. Conservationists argue that people have to come into close contact with animals to care about them—and on a shrinking planet, public concern is the only defense many creatures have against extinction.
This is a high-stakes debate, with enormous moral—not to mention financial—implications. Yet for the most part, it’s been civil. While there are undoubtedly fringe elements, expressing rage and maybe even advocating violence, the media has wisely framed the discussion so that there are no real villains in the picture—mostly just well-intentioned folks with conflicting viewpoints. The points of disagreement have been moral and philosophical differences, not hysterical accusations and personal attacks.
Such an approach to politics would go a long way toward establishing a climate of civility in Washington—not to mention maybe clearing the way for getting a few things done.
As spectators, we all share some of the moral responsibility for the issues at the root of these and other public debates. By buying tickets (or not), visitors to Sea World and other marine parks help determine the viability of keeping and displaying captive animals. Similarly, those who take the bait (or not) when political extremists throw out what is being increasingly referred to as “red meat” are casting a moral ballot—one that has implications for all of us.