Featured Image Credit: National Aquarium Baltimore
By Eva Gruber
We are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction on this planet, the last being the one that wiped out 96% of life on the planet, including most dinosaurs. The difference between this and all previous extinctions is that this one’s cause is caused by the dominant species on the planet – us.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have seen incredible increases in carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which are raising average global temperatures and throwing atmospheric and ecological systems into disarray. The major consequence of our own massive expansion across the planet has meant less habitats for other species. We have dumped toxic compounds into watersheds and oceans, harming aquatic life of all sizes from phytoplankton to whales.
All this damage has been done in the blink of an eye, in terms of geological time. Very little thought has been given to the other inhabitants of our planet – for all our virtues and morals, we truly are a self-centered species. Much of the damage done to the oceans has remained below the surface, thus out of sight, and out of mind. Only in recent decades have we had the technology and ability to further study our oceans and the marine ecosystem, and what we have discovered is a mirror image of what is going on above the surface.
One of the greatest questions of our time is, how do we get people to care about the damage being done to, and the tragic losses of species on our planet? Education and outreach is, perhaps, the only answer. We need to share information, raise awareness, and connect people to the natural rhythms and non-human inhabitants of this blue planet.
Since most of humanity lives relatively far from the ocean, many naturally lack the connection that ocean-lovers feel so strongly. And so, we can turn to aquariums and zoos to help provide a connection through up-front interactions with marine animals. Once a person sees the majesty and beauty of a beluga whale, or the obvious intellect and curiosity of a dolphin, or the languid rhythm of an anemone, they form an instant emotional connection with these animals.
These animals are not prisoners kept against their will – they are ambassadors for their species and for the oceans. They make tangible a connection and love for the marine ecosystem, more so than any documentary or film could ever do. They are crucial for conservation to work. Not all people can travel to see humpback whales, or dive with sharks, or swim above a tropical coral reef in order to fall in love with the ocean. It could be as easy, and as unexpected, as a day trip to the local aquarium.
Aquaria can provide educational outreach, raise awareness, and even conduct their own scientific research on aquatic life. For animal rights protesters to deny this is to contribute to the damage our species is doing.
There are responsible ways to care for an animal ambassador, and people should only ever support AZA-accredited institutions like SeaWorld, the Vancouver Aquarium, or the San Diego Zoo. These animals are not captives – they are captivating ambassadors bringing the public closer to nature.