In 1981 I went to Seaworld in California, aged 8 years old. I saw Shamu the killer whale, and went home with a beloved soft toy Shamu. It was one of the happiest days of my young life. Years later, while researching an article on the impact of captivity on killer whales, I discovered something which shattered my fond childhood memory. Shamu was dead.
Actually it was worse than that – Shamu wasn’t just dead. He’d died over and over again. No one seems too sure how many times he’s died. Because Shamu isn’t really a killer whale at all. He’s a brand. And while the killer whale formerly known as Shamu can be replaced by another (after all one black and white dolphin looks kind of like another), the association with a name, a brand, a friend for an impressionable 8 year old, cannot.
Now jump forward to 2014, and Shamu (brand iteration 2014) and the 50 or so other captive orcas are in the news again, along with 2000 more dolphins in captivity around the world. This is partly because of the documentary Blackfish and the campaigns against captive dolphin programmes that it has energised. And most recently it’s due to the news that STA Travel has announced it will no longer offer dolphinarium visits. According to STA: “We are reviewing our entire portfolio of animal-focused tours. We take this seriously and listen carefully to feedback from animal welfare experts, customers and staff. If something isn’t up to our standards, we remove it.”
I’m afraid I find the news somewhat underwhelming. We could sit and read through reams of documentation about whether captivity is harmful for these creatures. We could read counterarguments about captive breeding, outreach work, impacts on the local economy, enabling people to witness these majestic creatures up close. We could read Seaworld’s rebuttal against STA, where they “share with them our high standards of care and the rigorous inspection and accreditation process that assures the health and well-being of our animals.”
Or we could say that this shouldn’t be about Seaworld or STA or any other company’s assessment of whether the standards are stringent enough. It shouldn’t be about standards and guidelines at all.
Rather, it should be about people pausing to reflect on why we still pay to watch 9-metre long cetaceans with 15 pound brains doing sequenced summersaults in a pool.
The country with the highest number of captive dolphin facilities is Japan, with 57. It’s also one of the main supporters of the whaling industry, and annually kills 1000s of dolphins in the waters around Taiji (while capturing several for resale to dolphinaria). Has having the world’s largest number of captive dolphin shows softened the Japanese heart towards these creatures, or simply reinforced the notion that these animals are there for our consumption, whether as meat or entertainment?
It isn’t about weighing up the balance of evidence as to the impact of captivity on these creatures versus a series of other metrics. It’s about examining an idea of who we are as human beings and what relationship we want with the world around us. And when it comes to Shamu – first and foremost a brand and an idea – it’s an idea whose time is done.
This year at WTM, World Responsible Tourism Day will feature debates on a range of issues to do with tourism and animal welfare. More details soon.
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