Georgia Aquarium endangering its animals with new program
Published on: 02/14/08
Recently, the Georgia Aquarium sponsored a contest whereby visitors won a chance to swim or dive with the whale sharks. In fact, NBC touted this exploit on "Today," showing the three winners diving in the tank with the whale sharks. Now the aquarium has announced an ongoing program to provide paying customers an opportunity to swim with these animals.
We are disturbed that, after the deaths last year of two whale sharks in its charge, Ralph and Norton, the Georgia Aquarium has so little concern for the welfare of the remaining animals. A careful professional stance would have been for the Georgia Aquarium to minimize all possible negative impacts on the remaining sharks in order to maximize their chances of survival, which, we already know from Asian aquariums, are not good in captivity.
|'Today' (with Meredith Vieira) brought its cameras to the Georgia Aquarium on Tuesday, when winners of a contest with the prize of swimming with the whale sharks were announced. Allowing people to swim with the sharks stresses and endangers the animals, the writers say.|
Instead, the Georgia Aquarium chose to promote a highly commercial circus atmosphere and make the animals into an amusement park ride. How could anyone concerned about the welfare of these animals support the risks of contamination and stress associated with having people (who may carry diseases and germs) invade these animals' delicate environment? While divers in the Pacific occasionally swim alongside whale sharks, entering the enclosed space of captive animals has very different implications and consequences for the animals, who have no escape.
We wonder if anyone at the aquarium has considered the psychological effects of this intrusion into the whale sharks' already compromised personal space.
On its Web site the aquarium presents 25 frequently asked questions about the dive program. We would add one more: How do you think the animals feel about the paying guests who pop into their water every afternoon?
The aquarium markets this contest as a way to educate the public and preserve whale sharks. The sincerity of this claim is belied by the blatant exploitation of these animals at a price of $190 to $290 a swim or dive for nonmembers.
The aquarium has produced no credible evidence supporting the claim that visits to their whale shark exhibit (or any other exhibit, for that matter) translate into better understanding of whale sharks (or any other species). Also, there is no evidence that swimming with captive animals (such as fish and mammals) increases understanding and appreciation for them. Even if there were such evidence, would it be a risk worth taking?
Whale sharks live in deep water, swim for hundreds of miles to feed and mate, and do not typically interact with people. It seems to us that the truly important conservation message that people need to learn is how to value these animals without needing to commodify them.
P.T. Barnum once said, "Clowns and elephants are the pegs on which the circus is hung." Were he alive today and in Atlanta, he might add "30-foot sharks" to his equation.
— Lori Marino is a senior lecturer at Emory University's Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program. Randy Malamud is professor and associate chair of Modern Literature, Ecocriticism and Cultural Studies at Georgia State University. Ron Broglio is an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech.