Why You Should Boycott Aquariums and Zoos

By: Emily Goldberg  |  February 19, 2023

By Emily Goldberg, Layout Editor and Social Media Manager

When I was little, my family and I went to SeaWorld in California. I distinctly remember watching an orca whale show in which the audience was actively engaged. The whales leaped and jumped from the water, even splashing the audience, who clapped and laughed. As an animal lover, I too, was enthralled. I could not take my eyes off the whales. 

I was naive. I was not aware of the injustice unfolding before my eyes. Once the show was over, I, along with the rest of the audience, walked out of the stadium. We enjoyed the rest of our day in the park and, upon closing, happily went home. We got to leave, the orcas did not. Those whales, and all the other animals at SeaWorld, are trapped against their will and are suffering horrible living conditions. I am ashamed to say that I once supported the horrific actions of this institution and those like it. When you buy a ticket to an aquarium or zoo it should haunt you for the rest of your life.

Aquariums and zoos are holding animals in captivity. There is no possible way for these institutions to replicate the natural habitats of these animals. Instead of running free in their home savannahs, lions, elephants and giraffes are trapped in cages. Instead of swimming in the expanse of the ocean, orca whales, sea lions, dolphins, sharks, and fish are stuck in tiny cement pools. Starfish and sting rays sit in an indoor enclosure so small, it might as well be a container. Instead of a forest full of trees, glaciers in Antarctica, rocky mountain tops, caves, grasslands or the desert, animals are imprisoned for the enjoyment of man.

Animals in captivity are not naturally stimulated. Although it may seem like the animals are enjoying themselves when they are performing for an audience, this could not be more false. In his documentary, Inside the Tanks, Jonny Meah, a broadcaster and presenter on the radio station Heart in the United Kingdom who has also appeared in live shows on BBC, reveals that animals at Marineland in Antibes, France are visibly weary from their routines. As noted in this documentary and in others, such as Blackfish, the animals, despite participating in entertainment exercises, often come to hurt themselves because of their boredom, hitting their heads on the concrete of their pools and biting the rims which results in damage to their teeth. Sometimes the animals even attack each other. 

In the same documentary, Dr. Ingrid Visser, a marine biologist, highlights the unnatural conditions that these animals are experiencing. When observing dolphins in captivity she notes that when they play with a ball “it looks cute, but [it’s] not natural. How many dolphins have you ever seen out in the wild, [or] in any documentary, playing with a ball?” She also discusses how the tips of the dolphins’ beaks or snouts, otherwise known as their rostrums, are injured and bleeding because of “self mutilation” and that the concrete walls that the animals are surrounded by have “nothing for [them] to look at.” The dolphins also have lines on their heads that are the result of “unnaturally bending [their heads]…all the time” because of the vertical position they are in when interacting with their trainers. Jonny Meah notes how these observations are “so easy to miss for an untrained eye” but are “strong indications of distress within captivity).”  

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reveals some of the various cruelties that the orca whales at SeaWorld experience in captivity. For example, the size of the orca whale tanks at SeaWorld do not even begin to compare to the size of the ocean that the whales are meant to be living in. At SeaWorld, orca whales are kept in tanks about “86 feet by 51 feet and are only 34 feet deep-not even twice as deep as an orca is long.” The whales are “unable to engage in virtually any natural movement….and would have to swim the circumference of the tank more than 1,900 times in a single day to approximate the distance [they] would have swum” in the wild. This is the equivalent of a human living in a bathtub for their entire life. 

The SeaWorld website claims that their mission is “Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Return.” However, many of these animals are not rescues. They are captured from the wild, separated from their families, and forcibly put into enclosures for their entire lives. Then, they are bred in captivity and have their young prematurely separated from them. PETA notes that “dolphins [at SeaWorld] are being impregnated, sometimes forcefully after being drugged.” Even moreso, PETA highlights how although orca whales generally stick within their pods their whole lifetime in the wild, “SeaWorld transfers orcas between facilities to regularly ‘balance’ the genetic pool of breeding and for use in performances.” PETA also illuminates how, “SeaWorld removes calves from their mothers at ages far younger than they would be separated in the wild… it is clearly distressing to these animals.” The effect that these conditions have on the animals often has extreme repercussions on the trainers, who can experience aggression and be injured by the animals, most famously when three were killed by the same SeaWorld orca in 1991, 1999, and 2010.

Many people believe that zoos and aquariums are useful for the educational and research benefits that they have, as well as the opportunity they provide to treat injured animals. However, animals should not lose their freedom for the purpose of human research. Humans are quite capable of conducting research and educating the masses about these animals while allowing the animals to remain in their wild habitats. Once these animals are brought into parks, or even more so, when they are bred in the environment of these parks and don’t have to hunt for their own food, it is virtually impossible for them to readapt to the wild. If an animal is hurt and needs care, the treatment should be done as quickly as possible and the animal should be immediately returned to the wild so that they can readapt and avoid these consequences. 

Moreover, these institutions distort information and are successful because most people do not know what signs to look for to see that these animals are actually facing abuse. Visser explains, “It’s even worse than a prison, because the prisoners have done something wrong. These [animals] have done nothing wrong, except for look beautiful.” When the proper research is done, one realizes that the actual motivations of these institutions are not for educational or rescue purposes, but rather financial gain. If they truly cared about the animals, they would not have captured them from the wild in the first place. These animals are not objects or entertainers, and they were not created for the purpose of making these corporations wealthier. They are living creatures with souls, and they deserve to be treated with respect. If we, as the customers ,keep funding the institutions who falsely claim to care about these animals, they will keep breeding and capturing them because of the monetary benefits. 

If one truly wanted to learn about the beauty of these animals, one would actually go and see them in their natural habitats, where the animals belong, and where one can fully observe their grace and greatness within the beauty of the world they live in. One would not buy a ticket to an aquarium or zoo that distorts facts, abuses animals, and exposes them to horrendous and unnatural conditions. It is not the place to truly observe and learn about the complexity and magnificence of such animals and their ecosystems. 

We owe it to the animals in captivity to employ means such as protest and boycotts to stop these abusive practices. To learn more about the conditions that these animals are facing, I encourage you to read Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld and the Truth behind “Blackfish” by John Hargrove and Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Darkside of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby, as well as watch the documentaries Blackfish and Inside the Tanks