In February last year, we blogged about Expedia’s new animal welfare policy, expressing our delight that it was being developed with the help of zoological associations, the true experts in animal welfare. Expedia communicated their intention to work closely with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) because, in their own words: “We believe that people who have dedicated their lives to the study and research of animals and who regularly spend time observing and helping them are the most qualified and knowledgeable to assess the welfare of animals and the facilities in which they live”.
Unfortunately, after more than a year and a half of working with Expedia the illusion has faded, and what appeared to be a welfare policy based on scientific evidence and experience has been cut short to fall back on propaganda and emotion. Expedia has announced that they will no longer promote and operate any places where performances or interactions with cetaceans take place, except for sanctuaries where interventions or performances with the animals are not carried out.
To any sensible person this announcement will raise several questions:
On what scientific evidence do they base their distinction between the welfare of a cetacean or any other animal? The answer is none. There is no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that cetaceans cannot live adequately under human care. On the contrary, it has been shown that, in the best dolphinariums, they live longer than in the sea. Recent published work also demonstrates that what is most important for maintaining the welfare of cetaceans in dolphinaria is not the type of enclosure (floating cages, sea-based facilities, or conventional dolphinaria) but the implementation of an appropriate environmental enrichment program, such as that provided in accredited zoos.
What scientific studies show that presentations or interactions with cetaceans are detrimental to their welfare? The answer is identical, there are no studies to support that idea. On the contrary, scientific evidence shows that stress indicators (cortisol) are reduced after presentations and do not increase during interactions with dolphins.
So where does the drive to end cetacean presentations come from? Quite simply, the lobbying agenda of animal rights organizations believes that this is the best way to destroy zoos by ruining their reputation and reducing the visitor interest.
Are there any cetacean sanctuaries where it has been scientifically proven that the animals are better off? No. There are only two cetacean sanctuaries in the world, one in Iceland and the other in Bali. In the Icelandic sanctuary there are only two beluga whales, which only spent four months enjoying the “natural conditions” that Expedia seems to care so much about. After those four months the animals returned to a small concrete pool, ostensibly to avoid the rigors of winter (although belugas live much further north than Iceland, where winters are much colder, so that shouldn’t bother them), but in reality, they have spent the whole summer without returning to the sanctuary, and will remain in the pool for at least another eight months. In other words, the supposedly natural environment of a sanctuary does not seem to be suitable for cetaceans. From the Bali sanctuary, there is not even information on the number or status of the animals they care for.
In these circumstances, will Expedia’s decision improve the welfare of cetaceans in human care? Absolutely not, accredited zoos like Loro Parque will continue to care for all their animals with the same high quality and love as they have always done. The animals will continue to be guaranteed a high level of welfare by the same people who have dedicated their lives to their care and study. The same people that Expedia trusted just over a year ago.
But then, who will benefit from this measure? The leaders and shareholders of Expedia, who surely imagine that they will be able to be much more relaxed without the pressure (often almost blackmail and extortion) of animal rights groups. But they are wrong, once they win this battle, they will start another one for the next species, because the interest of the animal rights groups is not animal welfare, but to destroy the zoos.
Will this measure improve the conservation of the world’s endangered cetacean species? No, it will not. Animal organizations are not interested in critically endangered species of cetaceans that could disappear in the next decade. You will never hear them talk about them, or about conservation, because all they are interested in is the end of zoos. And paradoxically it is the zoos who are currently working for the dolphin species that are disappearing in the ocean in the face of the animalists’ indifference. Maybe in a few decades someone will criticize that the media and politicians did nothing to prevent the disappearance of the vaquita, the Ganges river dolphin, the franciscana dolphin, or the Atlantic humpback dolphin. And it is possible that the huge media noise of animal organizations putting the spotlight on zoos is one of the reasons why neither society, nor the media, nor politicians took action to prevent it. But it will be too late.