Often the justification for the captivity of performing animals is ‘educational purposes’. This is further coupled by the ignorant assertions of interested and biased parties who blatantly ignore scientific and logical reasoning and opt for un-reviewed and baseless opinions, instead. In truth, however, performing animals serve absolutely no purpose in educating people about their behaviour in the wild. But what we get is cruelty to animals, unnatural habitation, faulty education to children and money in the hands of charlatans (read immoral and ignorant businessmen).
Thankfully our government departments, or at least one of them, seems to make policy decisions affecting animals based on factual and peer reviewed data. I speak of the recent letter (http://www.awbi.org/awbi-pdf/dolpin.pdf) by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) – a subordinate board under the Ministry of Environment and Forests – to all relevant State and Union Territory departments, advising them against granting permissions to establish Dolphinariums. Dolphinariums are small captive areas where Cetaceans (the family of whales, dolphins and porpoises) are kept in unnatural, confined spaces.
The commonality amongst performing animals is that they are intelligent enough to learn the ridiculous tricks they are forced to perform. Unfortunately, this also probably makes them intelligent enough to have a greater measure of their incarceration than lesser intelligent animals. How aware they are of their unnatural habitat, if any, is open to debate. However, in this particular case, we are not discussing just any animal. Cetaceans include Bottlenose Dolphins, considered one of the most sentient beings known to us; so much so that the AWBI specifically mentioned them in their letter. In fact, this writer is convinced of them being more intelligent than certain humans he knows!
Either way, it is a high degree of cruelty on our part to keep animals in such conditions. That is why this month, this column will be one of those rare instances when I am thankful, indeed, proud of the process followed by the authorities. Moreover, the Indian authorities seem to have learnt their lesson well. The last time such an experiment was carried out (and I use the word experiment with the least scientific respect possible) in India, it led to the deaths of four dolphins imported in the 1990s.
The AWBI strongly stressed that the exposure to, or interaction with captive cetaceans did not in any way make the public more knowledgeable or concerned about dolphins or the environment. Somewhat surprisingly (with regards to the general practices of the authorities), they came to their conclusions after careful examination of peer-reviewed literature. In the AWBI’s opinion, on the contrary, the captivity of Cetacean tend to mis-educate the public about the marine environment.
To quote the AWBI letter, “Not only does the public not learn much, if anything, about the real life of Cetaceans, but they are led to believe that the tricks they see are how cetaceans truly behave in the wild and that the Cetaceans are pets, and have value only in the context of their relationship to humans.” The AWBI are also concerned about the stress that such importation and display generates in the animals. Prolonged exposure and inability to escape from such conditions can lead to extreme levels of discomfort and eventual death – a fact witnessed in the 1990s with the four dolphins.
It is heartening to see the use of scientific peer-reviewed processes to validate a just cause. One can only hope at the evolution of such thinking in other departments of the government. In the meantime, here’s kudos to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the AWBI on taking such a strong stand.