The recent Toronto Star exposé of Marineland in Niagara Falls makes me revisit a topic that I was going to write about this past winter, but – as with a lot of things – I just never got around to it.

When we were in Florida last February, we watched the movie “Winter’s Tale” followed by a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA).  “Winter’s Tale” is based on a true story about a dolphin who was found beached and trapped in a fisherman’s net.  She was saved by the Marine Life Rescue team at the CMA, where she had to have her tail amputated due to infection, and was rehabilitated after multiple attempts to fit a proper prosthetic tail.  It’s a heartwarming story, right? DQ was quite enthralled by it.

A couple of days later, we trekked out to the CMA, actual scene of the movie, and where Winter still lives.  I felt wrong just being there.  The first sign of trouble appeared before we even stepped foot into the Aquarium.  We had just paid our admission and walking towards the main entrance when we were asked if we wanted a picture taken with Winter’s prosthetic tale (for a price, of course).  Tacky. I sensed this was a sign of what was to come.

The main attraction, of course, was Winter and her dolphin cohorts, who – like Winter – could not be released back into the ocean because they were deemed unfit to survive on their own.  I never really realized how bothered I was by watching animals perform tricks until I watched these dolphins.  I am not challenging the CMA’s care of the dolphins and their other animals – I have absolutely no idea if they have proper standards or not.  However, I find it disconcerting that the Aquarium touts its mission to educate the public about “respect for marine life”, and then proceeds to make money off them by turning them into circus animals.  It’s not natural for dolphins to perform tricks.

I understand that the hundred or so kids who were there that day would have left very disappointed if all they got to see were the dolphins swimming around, but that doesn’t make it right.  There are other ways to capture kids’ imaginations, and we underestimate their ability to be fascinated by facts and information. This can happen if it’s delivered in a kid-friendly way.

I remember a couple of years ago, a mother of one of DQ’s friends had once commented on how she did not like the way the animals were treated at Marineland.  While I didn’t think to probe her further on the comment, it has always stuck with me, and anytime DQ asked if we would be going to Marineland, I always seemed to conveniently evade the question (to be perfectly honest, I hate dealing with crowds and line-ups, so that really is the primary reason I avoid it).  I am by no means an animal rights activist, but deep down, I always had a bit of a nagging feeling when walking through zoos or aquariums; this sense that something wasn’t right, that I was an “audience” for animals.  They are not a spectator sport.

If you want to see elephants and lions, go to Africa and find a professionally led safari expedition.  If you want to swim with the dolphins, jump into the ocean with professional divers.  Zoos and aquariums are just another element of our convenience economy.

Will you be boycotting Marineland?