Watch out zoos. You could be next.
How about free Shaba, an African elephant who is a long, long way from Africa. She’s at the San Diego Zoo.
Sure, it beats Cleveland, but it’s not the sub-Sahara either.
Animal rights organizations scored a huge win when SeaWorld recently announced it will stop the breeding of its killer whales and end with the silly tricks. Shamu, in time, will be history.
But why should the animal rights movement stop there? Indeed, will it? There are a whole lot of other animals held in captivity.
Lions, tigers and bears …
Plus birds, snakes, turtles …
Why should any of those animals be housed in enclosures and gawked at by five-year-olds munching cotton candy? Some animal rights groups, such as PETA, don’t think they should.
“PETA opposes zoos because cages and cramped enclosures at zoos deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs,” the organization notes on its website.
“In general, zoos and wildlife parks preclude or severely restrict natural behavior, such as flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging, foraging, digging, exploring, and selecting a partner.”
However, PETA hasn’t had much luck in getting the same kind of public support it helped garner to attack SeaWorld so successfully.
At least not yet.
It had a lot of firepower against SeaWorld. For one thing, it was hard for SeaWorld to defend its practice of keeping orcas in captivity, given how killer whales come from the oceans. The oceans are big. It’s hard to replicate that environment. And a lot of people got that.
Then came the documentary movie, “Blackfish,” which painted a horrible picture of SeaWorld’s practices. SeaWorld claimed the movie was inaccurate. It didn’t matter. An outcry grew, helped fueled by social media. A Facebook page called “SeaWorld Sucks” got nearly 15,000 likes.
Even politicians got involved, crafting legislation to stop orca breeding.
Plus, SeaWorld is a for-profit company, which was making big money from those big whales. It couldn’t handle the blowback any longer.
Many zoos, such as San Diego’s are nonprofit. They also work very hard on conservation efforts. So they claim they are doing important work — and not incentivized by money.
Will that be enough to keep organizations such as PETA at bay?
SeaWorld managed to do so for years even though its treatment of orcas has long been a subject of controversy. In 1989, a collision between two female orcas — in an apparent act of aggression — left one dead in San Diego’s park. She bled to death in front of spectators.
“An orca in captivity is like an eagle in a parakeet cage,'' Benjamin D. Deeble, an ocean ecology campaigner in Seattle for the environmental group Greenpeace, told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “Except in this instance they maybe tried to put two eagles in a parakeet cage, and one dead animal is the result.''
That was 30 years ago. And SeaWorld not just survived, but thrived. In 2009, Anheuser-Busch sold its three SeaWorld locations, as well as its amusement parks, for $2.3 billion to the private equity firm Blackstone Group.
"We are delighted to be investing in a company with such iconic brands, irreplaceable assets and strong growth prospects," said Michael Chae, then senior managing director at Blackstone, at the time.
Growth prospects? SeaWorld has lost about half of its stock value in 2014.
Zoos have had their problem with animal rights groups. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park got hit with criticism when an elephant died at its Safari Park in a clash with another elephant in 2011. The tragedy was similar to what happened at SeaWorld, with its two orcas. The herd had been growing too large and was becoming unmanageable, critics charged.
Additionally, animal rights’ groups note how elephants — the world’s largest land mammal — travel as much as 30 miles per day in the wild. It’s akin to orcas and their confinement, they say.
Even zoo’s conservation efforts have been called into question. Take the San Diego Zoo’s giant panda breeding program. Some argue that it does little good since the biggest problem facing the pandas is their dwindling natural habitat.
“Warehousing animals for life is not the way to save them from extinction,” PETA charges. “Their salvation lies in protecting habitats, not in creating animal prisons.”
Will zoos remain as popular as ever? Given how fast public opinion turned against SeaWorld, who’s to say?
There is a Facebook page called Zoos and Circuses Suck. It’s got 299 likes.