Recent investigations into Marineland’s treatment of animals beg us to consider whether we should allow such institutions to exist at all.
Linda Diebel’s recent “Inside Marineland” series for the Toronto Star exposes the brutality of an institution that shames us all. Local citizens have long protested the mistreatment of animals there. In 2003, Marineland responded with a libel suit (later dropped), attempting to bankrupt its critics into silence. The case led environmentalist David Suzuki to describe Marineland as “a thug in the neighbourhood.”
There is plenty to criticize. Marineland is a participant in, and financial supporter of, the international trade in wildlife, depleting many species. It isolates marine animals, which normally range over hundreds of kilometres, in small, filthy, concrete tanks, where they are blinded and poisoned by chemical soup. Other animals, such as bears, which are normally solitary, are penned in groups and constantly exposed to the gazes of tourists. Inventories reveal high numbers of deaths in captivity. Even Florida’s SeaWorld, no paragon of animal welfare, used the Ontario courts to force Marineland to return an orca it had loaned out, because it claimed Marineland was not meetings its obligations to care for animals.
Yet, as owner John Holer says, there is nothing illegal about his operation. The lack of effective animal protection laws in Canada allows these atrocities to continue, and Marineland’s economic influence in Niagara Falls means that the voices of altruistic animal advocates go unheeded. If animals are viewed as commodities and profits are to be made, exploitation is inevitable.
Marineland is impossibly squalid, an embarrassment and an affront not only to the Niagara region, but also to anyone with a sense of compassion. However, the issues here extend far beyond a single theme park – they go right to the heart of our society. As a nation that aspires to civilized behaviour, we must not only ask how to stop the mistreatment of animals at Marineland, but also rectify the situation in which zoos are allowed to operate without supervision and according to standards that they set for themselves. Indeed, we should consider whether we should allow such abusive institutions to exist at all.
While Marineland and other institutions like it are presented as suitable venues for family fun, and are sometimes defended on the grounds that they allow children to learn about animals, they teach all the wrong lessons. We will learn nothing from Marineland that we would not learn from an IMAX documentary. Indeed, Marineland forces animals to perform tricks for food, meaning that we do not see their natural behaviour – instead, we see only cartoonish reflections of our own imagination.
What we do learn from such institutions is that it is morally acceptable to deprive other animals of their freedom, remove them from their own families and social groups, hold them in prisons that severely restrict their movement and drive them mad (as in the case of animals that communicate sonically and are trapped in concrete tanks), turn them into clowns, and subject them to the stress of constant observation.
The message Marineland conveys is that of domination, the idea that the world exists for us alone and that we can do with others as we please, no matter how terrible the consequences for them. This message that we are separate from the rest of nature is both ugly and false, and it has led us to a point where we are witnessing a massive loss of biodiversity, the greatest mass extinctions since dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Far from being a trivial issue, the exposure of abusive conditions at Marineland offers us an opportunity to rethink our fundamental attitudes about the world we share with other beings, and to reshape our behaviour towards them.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.