Photo: The dolphins at Ocean World look happy, but is it an illusion?
Having traveled for over a decade, I’ve always felt that traveling was more like an occupation requiring dedication than some frivolous form of escapism. Though I’m sure my parents didn’t exactly see it that way as I boarded a plane to Russia, citing my “fear of cubicles” as reason enough to flee the U.S.
I learned quickly that traveling is hard work and comes with responsibilities. The responsibility to respect different cultures; to try to speak the language of the country I’m in; to be open to lifestyles different from my own; to eat foods I wouldn’t normally eat out of respect for my hosts; to have empathy for those who struggle to get by; and to consider the practices of other cultures, even those I initially recoil from, and decide how to react to them.
When I lived in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country, I got used to wearing long, loose clothing, even in 120-degree weather, and I had to remember never to extend my hand to a man when introducing myself, which took some getting used to. But there were some things I chose not to get used to. Like slavery and camel racing. And so I made the decision not to attend the local camel races so as not to support a sport that depended on child slaves to exist. And after I left in 2004, I felt validated when the government banned the use of child jockeys in camel racing.
When I lived in Seville, Spain, bullfighting was very much alive and popular, boasting Ernest Hemingway’s love for the sport as validation, as well as the fact that it was a tradition. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to attend a bullfight because, to me, it was blood-thirsty, cruel and pointless. And I didn’t understand how Spaniards could call it a “fight,” considering the bull never had a chance at winning.
What was interesting, though, was how my students in Spain reacted to the news in 2005 that the British government had banned fox-hunting in England, a sport which involved people on horseback unleashing trained dogs on foxes, tearing them apart from limb to limb when caught. My Spanish students all agreed that fox-hunting was barbaric, cruel and unnecessary and, of course, it should be banned.
“But what about bullfighting?” I asked.
“Bullfighting? What do you mean?!” they asked. “That’s an art. It’s Spanish tradition!”
“But some could see it as barbaric, cruel and unnecessary,” I said.
“No, no, no, that is different,” they protested.
And I protested in return, challenging their viewpoint and asking my students to examine their own “traditions” with a bit more objectivity. This was a difficult exercise, as it turned out. As it is for many people, including myself, regardless of where they’re from. But through that conversation and many more like it, I began to see that one culture’s tradition is sometimes another culture’s cruel and unusual punishment.
So, when a reader respectfully wrote to me about the moral controversy surrounding animals in captivity and parks like Ocean World in the D.R., after seeing photos of me swimming with dolphins, sharks, stingrays and sea lions, I immediately felt guilty. Had I just unwittingly committed an irresponsible travel misstep?
It had never occurred to me that by taking my nephews to Ocean World, I might be supporting an environmentally harmful cause. In fact, as an animal lover, I was ecstatic to have the rare opportunity to touch and swim with these incredible creatures. But as it turns out, ignorance really is bliss.
So now that I was no longer ignorant, I felt a responsibility to educate myself by consulting the internet, debating with my family, posing questions to a marine biologist, and renting the documentary “The Cove,” which has motivated animal rights organizations to advocate for dolphins and campaign against marine parks.
And the purpose of all this research has been to help me pin down my convictions about marine parks like Ocean World and make sense of the controversy surrounding dolphins and other wild animals in captivity.
If you haven’t seen “The Cove,” it is a film by Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer on the 1964 TV series “Flipper,” who had a drastic change of heart regarding captivity after a dolphin died in Ric’s arms from what he claims was a suicide wrought from despair at living in captivity. The film, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010, criticizes the practice of dolphin culling in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, where most of the world’s captive dolphins come from, and where about 23,000 dolphins are slaughtered each year for meat, as well as to protect the fish stock from dolphin consumption.
In a word, the film is heart-breaking. I can’t deny the emotions I felt while watching dolphins being netted and speared to death.
But, by the time I sat down to watch “The Cove,” I had already read a lot about the centuries-old dolphin-hunting tradition in Japan and countries like the Solomons Islands, Faroe Islands and Peru, as well as the issues with dolphins in captivity. So my inner cheerleader was rooting for the film to offer a solid argument for why I should never visit a marine park again, or support animals in captivity in any way.
Except, instead of filling me with conviction, I came away from the film with more questions than answers, including:
How is the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year in Japan more wrong than the 34 million cows slaughtered in the U.S. every year?
What is the criteria for animals we can’t kill for food vs. animals we can kill for food? Is it cuteness? Intelligence? Our sentimentality? Who decides this criteria?
If the dolphin population is increasing in Japan, despite the hunts, doesn’t that make them a sustainable source of food?
The 12 dolphins at Ocean World came from Taiji, Japan, and were spared from the dolphin hunt. Should I not be happy that someone paid good money to spare these dolphins’ lives?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. And though watching the one-sided tale of Taiji’s fishing industry unfold on film was educational, it was equally educational to read some of the negative reviews of the film on Amazon.com. Many of the reviewers asked similar questions to the ones I formed while watching “The Cove,” and some of them offered perspectives from within the Japanese culture, which the film failed to address.
“I think killing animals for meat could be cruel if killing dolphins is cruel,” wrote one Japanese reviewer. “And [the film] didn’t mention the history of dolphin and whale hunting in Japan. In the 19th century, Western whale hunters used to kill whales to get its oil just for fuel for the lamp, and they threw whale meats and bones into sea while Japanese hunted them for food.”
And one American reviewer, Nathan, wrote, “It’s funny how animals with cute personalities get more respect then ones without charm, say cows or chickens. Take a look at Food Inc. and see how we treat animals in this country and around the world. The small Japanese town that has been doing this is a fishing village, they don’t kill for sport. Leave them be.”
So, there it is. After all that research, my self-imposed obligation to be a responsible traveler has brought me here, to this troubled intersection of contradicting viewpoints, leaving me desperate to have a cheat sheet of rules that overrides all sentimentality and offers a universal morality.
But, alas, I am still unclear on whether I think it is wrong for parks like Ocean World to have dolphins and marine animals in captivity. Personally, I was blown away by the experience of interacting with the animals at Ocean World, and I could see from the ecstatic looks on my nephews’ faces, that they were too. And I know those particular dolphins were spared their lives in Taiji because a wealthy man who loves animals paid a lot of money to bring those dolphins to the Dominican Republic.
Does that make the owner of Ocean World a bad person? And I wonder, do zoos and marine parks have no educational value?
I do my best to be a responsible traveler, which requires me to tread carefully and learn from my mistakes as I move between cultures and around language barriers, all the while remembering that my viewpoint is just one viewpoint, which is not necessarily universal.
But in this particular case, I am struggling to work out what my viewpoint is.
I just know that, reflecting on my experience at Ocean World, I don’t regret having gone with my nephews to experience first-hand the power of these amazing creatures. And I have no doubt that some of the little kids who visit these parks are inspired by their love for these animals to grow up and become marine biologists who contribute to the protection of our natural world.
I guess the question is, is that justification enough?