COLUMN: The evolution of understanding nature

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On Point by Andrew Holota

Two more beluga whales died in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium in the past week.

The cause isn’t yet clear – perhaps some sort of virus. I’ve no doubt their caretakers are sincerely heartbroken.

The real question is: Is that enough now? Have we captured and witnessed the demise of enough of these sea creatures to get past the flimsy arguments supporting this exercise in human arrogance?

This society has moved past the slaughter of various species of cetaceans for food and other products – almost to the point of extinction.

We’ve reconciled ourselves with the concept that jailing large beasts such as lions, tigers and elephants in tiny cages in travelling circuses is cruel.

Most people are now disturbed by the concept of destroying a magnificent creature such as the grizzly bear for no other reason than to hang its head on a wall.

The practice of plucking whales and dolphins out of their watery wild habitat, and dropping them into the equivalent of a bathtub for the rest of their pathetic lives has lost the majority of public approval.

Now is the time to move past the alternative, which is to breed these creatures in captivity. What makes that acceptable?

Aside from the lucrative business angle, queue the “education” justification here.

Since not everyone can get out on the ocean and watch these beautiful mammals in their natural environment, it is therefore reasonable to confine them to a cell with plexiglass windows so people can “learn” about them, and “appreciate nature.”

It’s a stunning oxymoron.

Our children learn about countless things that are not hands-on and in real-time. They are taught about history and foreign lands and people, and the universe beyond our tiny planet – via words in books, and pictures, and videos.

The development of holographs and three-dimensional optical devices are remarkable new tools to “experience” places and environments otherwise virtually inaccessible.

Even without ultra-sophisticated devices, we can still somehow manage to communicate complex human conditions and issues – without forcing a live performance on a backyard fake stage.

As a journalist, I have been in war-torn countries, and have seen the human misery it creates.

I took pictures. I wrote stories. I described the experiences to my child. And despite not having been there in person, or poking her finger into the protruding ribs of a hungry child to appreciate his plight, she gets it.

She has learned to be compassionate, sympathetic and supportive of her fellow humans. She appreciates peace and security without having to personally walk in a place devoid of it.

When it comes to understanding nature, she’s more fortunate than most kids. We took her on many of our excursions into the outdoors, including ocean paddling trips where she saw the real, rich world of whales, and porpoises, and sea otters.

Our hope was that through those experiences, she would develop a deep appreciation for nature and its wild creatures – understanding the immense realm in which they live, and the freedom of movement so intrinsic to their existence.

That’s the huge disconnect created by aquariums. Paying money to watch intelligent creatures swim bored circles in a big cement tank and perform tricks for snacks from a bucket utterly devalues their natural environment and behaviour.

The fact that not everyone can see the these denizens of ocean wilderness is precisely what makes them so special.

Putting them on display, training them to perform, and replacing them with more live specimens when they finally die teaches continued disrespect of the environment that we are ostensibly so concerned about protecting.

That’s where our understanding needs to evolve.

Andrew Holota is the editor of The Abbotsford News.


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