Guest post by Adam M. Roberts, CEO of EarthShare member charity Born Free USA
Animal protection and wildlife conservation advocates have made huge advances in the past half century: city ordinances banning bullhooks, state legislation banning exotic pets, federal laws like the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act, and international treaties banning the elephant ivory or rhino horn trade. They help birds, marine mammals, tigers, lions, elephants, wolves, and more.
It can take generations for human thinking to evolve and for changes to be made in the way society deals with oppression, but history shows that compassionate citizens can make a difference. Two recent announcements suggest that perseverance does, in fact, pay significant dividends: Ringling and SeaWorld (elephants and orcas).
The campaign to end egregious elephant shows, most notably by Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, has been long and tortuous. Animal protection organizations challenged the treatment and training techniques at the circus as a violation of the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the harming of Asian elephants: a protected species. The barbaric bullhook, a metal spike that is dug into the elephants’ sensitive skin, was central to the argument (not to mention the chaining of elephants and the insufferably long train rides from show to show).
The legal battle went on for more than a decade in an expensive, complex, frustrating, and heartbreaking back-and-forth. Eventually, a federal judge dismissed the case on a legal technicality.
But, in the meantime, the mistreatment was exposed. Cities across the country began to challenge the ways circus elephants are forced to perform, and Ringling announced it would be exiting the elephant business in 2018. A massive development for a massive mammal!
Still better, Ringling moved up the date of retirement to March 2016. Now, there are no more performing elephants in Ringling’s traveling show.
While this announcement signals exciting progress, and while it is a sure sign that Ringling sees the tide of public opinion turning against the exploitation of animals, we still have reason to be wary and vigilant.
Ringling’s elephants were moved to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, where, in February 2016, a young elephant named Mike prematurely passed away. Despite being off of the show circuit, Mike was forced to train and perform for media and other visitors. Ringling is allegedly still using these elephants for profit under the guise of retirement. Mike’s tragic death and Ringling’s plan to use its “retired” elephants for cancer research reinforce the fact that Ringling must transform its so-called “Center for Elephant Conservation” into a true sanctuary.
Similarly, SeaWorld announced that it would end breeding of captive orcas at its facilities and have no new orcas in any of its parks worldwide. SeaWorld also pledged to phase out theatrical orca shows in favor of “natural encounters,” and to increase efforts to protect oceans and wild marine mammals. This is all expected to occur within the next four years.
There are 25 captive orcas in the U.S. All but one (Lolita) are held by SeaWorld. Six were wild-caught and the rest were born in captivity. The lifespan for captive orcas is a fraction of their wild counterparts, and the shortened lives they do lead are in the most unnatural conditions.
In the wild, orcas can swim 100 miles daily and routinely dive to 300 feet. In captivity, their tanks are only 1/10,000th of one percent the size of their natural home ranges. Captive orcas languish alone or in unnatural groups, rather than the wide-ranging family pods that nature encourages.
Exposed by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, orca suffering at SeaWorld locations is profound. SeaWorld is not just responsible for the horrid lives and untimely deaths of orcas, but also for the beluga whales and various other marine mammals who suffer and die on its watch.
SeaWorld’s announcement is an important start, but the work is not done. We must also ensure that these orcas are moved to sea sanctuaries and that the same protections are afforded to the other species currently languishing in tanks.
Ringling is moving out of the elephant business and SeaWorld is moving out of the performing orca business. If these two stalwarts of wild animal captivity and performance can evolve, perhaps there is hope for all animals in need.
With each victory, small or large, those of us working for a more compassionate world are further emboldened to fight for change. And, change is coming…
Keep wildlife in the wild.