The drowning of eco-morality

Dan Rodricks FHC NtB

December 27, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

The first anniversary of the Marine Mammal Pavilion at the National Aquarium has been marked by the death of the second beluga whale in as many years, and this time they're blaming the dolphins.

Flipper to Press: Stop me, Before I Kill Another Beluga!

Give the aquarium types credit. We hadn't heard this one before. But then, after 10 years of trying to explain the deaths of dolphins and whales, of having to defend the trapping of marine mammals, of having to find unique ways to convince an increasingly nature-sensitive public that the new pavilion is an "educational" facility, not just a watery amusement park -- after all that, I guess even the sharpest public relations minds run out of things to say.

So this time, they're blaming the dolphins.

They say the beluga took a sharp jolt from a dolphin's tail the other day in the main exhibition pool. This shattered the whale's ribs and ruptured its heart.

"We're all extremely upset and shocked by it," the aquarium's mammal curator said, which is what they always say.

We heard this kind of anguish expressed shortly after the National Aquarium opened in 1981. Four wild bottlenose dolphins were shipped to Baltimore to satisfy opening-day visitors and the power elite that made the aquarium possible. Of course, the dolphins had no business being there. They were not ready for the stress huge crowds would bring. But tourism, the holy grail of Baltimore in the 1980s, took priority over the well-being of the dolphins. The eco-morality of having them tanked at all wasn't even considered. Within two months, one of the dolphins was dead and three others developed stomach ulcers so bad they had to be shipped to Florida to recover.

Of course, when that first dolphin project soured, aquarium staff members said they were shocked and saddened.

In the mid-1980s, we heard them rationalize, ad nauseam, the capture of beluga whales from their natural habitats in Canada. We heard the same when the aquarium hired a trapper to go after dolphins in Florida's gulf coast.

We heard grieving when a second dolphin died in 1984. The grief was accompanied by a great effort to assure us that the animal had died from problems it developed before it came to Baltimore.

In 1989, we heard how sorry the staff was when one of the belugas captured in Canada died. And, of course, we heard it again this week when another beluga, forced to live in a tank with other mammals and to commit unnatural acts, died during a training exercise.

But spare us the tears, please.

If they were not in the business of trying to maintain these animals as tourist attractions, the marine trainers and scientists who work for aquariums wouldn't have to feel so bad. If they were not part of the problem, their remorse would ring genuine. As it stands, such angst over the death of a beluga doesn't sound like sorrow; it sounds like guilt.

"I feel like we're part of the solution to the environmental concerns, not the problem," the aquarium's spokeswoman said again the other day.

How?

How on earth is this continuation of a marine circus serving the earth?

The National Aquarium is the National Anachronism. It is out of place, out of time. It belongs in Victorian England, not in this age of renewed and vigorous commitment to the planet. At a time when we are desperately trying to salvage the environment, to narrow the conflict between human needs and the fragility of the Earth, to instill in every conscience -- especially those of our kids -- the imperative to preserve and nourish the whole biosphere, the National Aquarium traps and buys dolphins and small whales. It trains them to do tricks. It's shameful.

Public performances by dolphins and whales do nothing for public education that a good television documentary or middle school class project couldn't do.

What they do is bring in bucks.

With the Marine Mammal Pavilion, which cost $35 million, the aquarium is trying to lure back the thousands of visitors who came once, paid the steep admission, looked at the fish and left, never planning to return. Without something new -- without dolphins jumping and belugas playing water polo -- the people who run the aquarium knew they could not keep the tourists coming through the turnstiles. So the aquarium folk shouldn't feel the need to wring their hands over dead whales. We all understand: This is business.

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