SeaWorld made an historic announcement last week: one that caused elation amongst animal welfare devotees worldwide; one that feels like it might be important to the future of how we understand our relationship with animals in a recreational context. The organisation, which incorporates 12 parks across North America, have ceased their orca breeding programme with immediate effect, with live 'shows' to be phased out entirely by 2019. There are, of course, those of us who feel that these decisions are not far-reaching enough; SeaWorld remains obstinate in its refusal to consider moving their animals to more hospitable conditions in some form of quasi-captivity, and whilst it is comforting to know that those animals already living at the parks will be the last generation to do so, their lives are made no less profoundly miserable by virtue of their offspring not being made to endure the same.
Following the release of the Blackfish documentary in 2013, SeaWorld began to chart an irreversible descent towards its nadir, with many transatlantic onlookers quick to condemn the parks' millions of annual visitors, all of whom are complicit in the prioritisation of spectacle over animal welfare. Whilst SeaWorld's announcement is most certainly representative of progress - a corporate acquiescence to what we might hope is a paradigm shift in public attitudes towards the commodification of animals in recreational contexts - it also provides a perfect opportunity for us to begin having a more rigorous conversation about our animal welfare ethics in the UK. Despite recent developments, we continue to use an ethical framework that prioritises human gratification - taken here to mean spectacle, competition, tradition and/or recreation - above all else, and whilst this is still the case, our ethics will remain inconsistent.
SeaWorld is a powerful case in point when it comes to these dubious ethics. The faintest whiff of 'conservation' or superficial assertions that the animals are content ("Why else would they do the shows?!") and we readily condemn them to captivity and commodification. We become unwilling to consider the matter further because to do so might be to deprive fanny-pack adorned holidaymakers of a chance to have their senses assaulted by fragrant, luminous stalls of overpriced merchandise and hordes of screaming children on those weird leashes in a North American theme park. The company's executives (amongst which there are plenty of MBA graduates, but few with any obvious Conservation Biology credentials) have always remained vocal about their commitment to conservation, but the fact remains that SeaWorld yield gargantuan profits from their theatrical orca displays, attended by millions of people each year.
SeaWorld's raison d'etre has thus consistently remained less about animal welfare than about gratuitous entertainment at the expense of a species which has been kept in a profoundly inadequate space - the tanks inhabited by the orca inmates at the SeaWorld parks are grimly miniscule in comparison to the size of the car parks. Further, and perhaps rather cynically, I can't help but wonder whether public attitudes to SeaWorld would've experienced such a dramatic downward turn had human lives not been lost along the way. Whilst the deaths of multiple park employees and others is, of course, deeply tragic, we must not perpetuate a false dichotomy in value between human and animal life; both are important and neither should be viewed as collateral damage in the context of mass entertainment.
And yet, closer to home and across the Atlantic, whilst many have praised the news coming from the executive board rooms of SeaWorld, Crufts and the Cheltenham Festival continue to operate largely as they always have done. We continue to indulge the Kennel Club's annual parade of deformity for the sake of human gratification, just as we neglect the welfare of horses who race to their deaths at Cheltenham.
Horseracing is a fixture of British culture and counter-culture; a day at the races is as much a chance to network and socialise amongst monied pals, as it is as a chance to mock those who do precisely that. Either way, a lot of shouting and champagne is usually involved, but a day at the races is much more insidious for the animals involved, with 7 deaths recorded within the first 3 days of the festival.
It is no secret that the participating horses are pushed to their physical limits, many having been mentally exhausted long ago. Pulmonary bleeding, fatal lacerations, and inoperable fractures are a staple of the post-race fall-out, with some animals dying during the event, immediately after, or the days and weeks following. Many who do not drop-dead due to fatal arrhythmias or acute respiratory distress as a result of over-exertion, are instead euthanised, having sustained injuries such as broken or shattered bones, which are notoriously difficult to heal in an animal that struggles to redistribute weight in the event of bone or ligament damage.
Similar to the breeding practices of many who participate in Crufts, stallions in the context of international horseracing are sought for their own particular characteristics, with some attracting stud fees in the tens of thousands in the hopes that any resultant progeny will perpetuate favourable characteristics into the bloodstock. When it comes to horseracing, we therefore continue, scandalously and unforgivably, to permit the prioritisation of spectacle, competition, tradition and recreation over the welfare of the animals commodified for the purpose.
Crufts, meanwhile, has been the subject of low-grade criticism since 2008, when the RSPCA distanced itself from the competition. Detractors decry the idolatrous pursuit of 'breed standard' perfection over the welfare of the dogs involved and 2016 has been no different. In particular, many have expressed grave concern for a German Shepherd named Tori who was awarded the Best in Breed title despite her exaggerated sloping croup, which appeared to be causing difficulties with mobility.
Throughout the course of history, humans have used genetic manipulation to both encourage and discourage particular breed characteristics in pursuit of canine pedigree ideals. One of my favourite breeds of dog, the Basset Hound, is no exception. Bred as stealthy hunters (although I have yet to meet one who would prefer a field to a fireside), the Basset Hound has been genetically modified through manipulative breeding practices in order to exaggerate certain characteristics for function, utility and, more recently, simple aesthetics. Over the course of their history, the Basset Hound's ears have become longer; their bodies lower; their temperaments more stubborn- all traits which contribute to its reputation as an exceptional scent-hound. But along with this genetic manipulation has come a host of physiological difficulties, including dermatological disease (due to excessive folds in the skin); hip dysplasia (due to musculoskeletal deformity); and entropion (due to loose skin around the eyes). The point is that humans have consistently encouraged certain canine breed characteristics in pursuit of whichever particular contemporaneous utility or aesthetic is in vogue, with minimal regard for the health implications.
Crufts exemplifies, even celebrates, this commitment to the pursuit of exaggerated and idealised 'breed standards' for the sake of competition, seeking to continue pedigree bloodlines which only serve to entrench and worsen deformities. Further, we must ask how ethical it is for breeders to churn out puppies for profit, competition, or even companionship without any hint of regulation or framework for ethical practice, and with blatant disregard to the clear and current surplus of canines we have in the UK, as evidenced by our vastly over-populated animal rescue shelters. Human gratification is prioritised once more, whilst any notion of animal welfare seems to loiter forgotten around the periphery of the show-ring.
Those with even a vague interest in animal welfare issues are quick to condemn cruelty on a worldwide scale. We are right to question the seasonal slaughter of dolphins on the east coast of Japan, the ocean brimming thick with their blood; just as we are right to question the practice of running with bulls in Pamplona, their eyes rolling white with abject terror; and the use of elephants to ferry tourists around in Thailand, their spines buckled and spirits broken from years of work which is quite literally back-breaking. Yet despite our clear and consistent outrage to such practices elsewhere, we frequently fail to initiate any form of substantive introspection when it comes to the treatment of our own animals here in the UK, especially when they are commodified for recreational purposes.
So not only must we engage in a critical debate about our animal welfare ethics, but we must acknowledge them for what they are: selective, inconsistent and secondary to our own gratification. We cannot condemn the practices of others, whilst indulging our own barbarity without any sense of contradiction. We must scale our conversation back more wholly, dismantling the very framework that underpins our prioritisation of spectacle, competition, tradition and recreation over that of animal welfare. Whilst this framework remains intact, progress will continue to be inconsistent. Meanwhile, cruelty will continue to occur on our doorstep.