Have you been to a circus and watched lions and tigers jump through hoops recently? The most likely answer is 'no' of course. Why? Because although it is not yet illegal; it is deemed shocking and morally unacceptable to most of us. So why is it ok for marine parks to keep killer whales and dolphins in small tanks and train them to perform tricks for public amusement? I do not believe it is, and the public are rapidly reaching the same conclusion.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite's outstanding documentary, Blackfish has played a huge part in changing perceptions around the captive whale and dolphin industry. The film has been seen across the world and has led to massive public outcry directed at SeaWorld in particular. We've more recently seen a Californian assemblyman introduce a bill to try to make it illegal to keep orcas (killer whales) in captivity in his State. The move received huge global support. Plus, from within the tourism industry, last month Richard Branson publicly announced Virgin's commitment to a six month 'stakeholder engagement process' to discuss the keeping of cetaceans in captivity.
Indeed I believe the whole of the travel and tourism industry, not just Virgin, needs to take a long, hard look at what is going on. Many travel companies continue to support such marine parks because they think that the public ultimately want to visit these places. Public perceptions have changed. Families with children often find these shows uncomfortable. There is a real and growing movement of travellers who want to see an end to this practice. To voice travellers' increased discomfort, this week, we've launched a petition with the World Cetacean Alliance Captivity Working Group.
Some from within the tourism industry argue that it is enough to improve animal welfare standards. Surely if the tanks are a little bigger and the orcas get more fresh fish and free time it is acceptable? There are no standards of welfare that I believe to be acceptable. In their natural environment, these animals span huge distances and depths each day. In captivity they are confined to small, purpose-built tanks and trained to perform tricks and stunts to loud music and a cheering crowd.
To strive towards 'better animal welfare' is missing the point. The debate should be about whether it is right or wrong to keep these super intelligent and social animals in captivity for entertainment purposes. Morally, it's tough to find any justification for that.
How about education and awareness raising? Kids and families spend an afternoon watching orcas performing and 'boom', they are converted conservationists for life, right? I think these types of live shows serve no purpose in educating young people. In fact, they are teaching exactly the opposite of respect for these animals. If education and increasing awareness is your objective there are far better ways. Responsible wild whale watching experiences with trained naturalists and inspiring documentaries have far wider reaching and authentic educational benefits as the animals are being viewed in their natural environments. These are just some of the ways we can begin to achieve this more effectively.
So for me, the argument is simple and morally based. Just as nothing can justify the use of tamed wild animals in circuses, I believe it's time to stop the orca circuses too. It's no longer an enjoyable way to spend part of your overseas holiday and I hope the travel and tourism industry can translate the current tide of public sentiment into real action on this issue. You can help too by joining the conversation on the changing way we think about orcas and dolphins in captivity by signing the petition today at http://www.responsibletravel.com/stop-orca-circus