By Steve Wise,
The Nonhuman Rights Project
The Georgia Aquarium recently captured 18 beluga whales from the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Russia, and is planning to fly them halfway around the world to be put on display in the United States.
As the aquarium describes it, they’re doing this primarily in the name of conservation. But we’re also told, as a way of explaining why it’s OK to capture these whales, that the families of belugas there won’t be harmed because there are so many thousands of belugas in the Sea of Okhotsk.
In fact, what the Georgia Aquarium is primarily in the business of conserving is its own business, which includes adding to its breeding stock. It seems they’re not very good at either conservation or captive breeding, either. Last month, days after one of the captive belugas gave birth, her baby died. But rather than admit that captive breeding is fraught with problems, the aquarium simply tried to argue that it’s quite normal in the wild for a firstborn baby to die. (It is not.)
In fact, the aquarium has already admitted that the belugas they captured were living in a healthy population in the Sea of Okhotsk, which means they needed no conservation assistance other than being left alone.
Capturing whales and dolphins in U.S. waters came to an end in the 1990’s after public outcry. That’s the reason that the Georgia Aquarium decided to go to Russian waters, capture the belugas there, and then bring them back to this country. It’s an expensive operation, but it’s the only way of skirting the agreement they’d made with the public not to capture whales and dolphins from their families in the wild. Even so, importing belugas to the U.S. will require clearance from federal agencies, so the Georgia and other aquariums have mounted a concerted public relations effort – all about their efforts to “educate” the public to respect the lives of marine mammals in the wild. (The contradictions and inconsistencies just keep mounting.)
The Georgia Aquarium is the nation’s largest aquarium, and has been working hard to attract visitors. For example, it puts on one of the brashest, loudest and most tasteless dolphin performances anywhere in the world, sponsored by AT&T. They call it a “spectacular musical theatrical performance” with “live human actors, dramatic costuming and amazing effects” – all of which is supposedly going to teach us “the importance of caring for and about aquatic creatures.”
When Atlanta’s largest newspaper, Atlanta Journal Constitution(AJC) broke the news of the Georgia Aquarium’s plan, you might have expected them at least to have written a balanced report, pointing out some of the issues in what the aquarium is doing. Instead, they simply published a glowing story about the plan, and with no dissenting opinion. Why? Perhaps because the Georgia Aquarium is one of the newspaper’s major advertisers, as well as being considered one of the city’s best tourist attractions.
When the AJC wrote about the death of the baby beluga last month, the AJC didn’t even check the facts, once again simply printing what the aquarium told them. Almost any outside expert could have surely pointed out the flaws in the aquarium’s excuses for what had happened.
Underlying all of this is the fundamental fact that the belugas, like all other nonhuman animals, have no rights of their own. They are entirely at the mercy of human decisions. There’s nothing to stop a wealthy corporation like the Georgia Aquarium to make a deal with another country – in this case Russia – and plunder the families of sentient, self-aware, social creatures with lives of their own, and fly them away to spend the rest of their lives entertaining people in tanks thousands of miles from their homes and families.
This is not going to change overnight. The Nonhuman Rights Project is not going to change international law at the drop of a hat. But what we are indeed committed to doing is establishing that under the common law of the United States, certain self-aware, intelligent nonhuman beings must be considered legal persons with the capacity for certain appropriate legal rights, like the right to bodily liberty. When that happens, it will become increasingly difficult for corporations like the Georgia Aquarium to plunder the oceans for the sole purpose of the conservation of their own businesses.