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Ocean-going genius

Well, like the masses I ended Earth Day not quite as in touch with the planet as I should have been unless plopped in front of the television is eco-living. To my defense I did tune in to ‘Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures:  Call of the Killer Whale’ and was left in awe as usual after indirectly witnessing the complexities of marine mammal communities.

In this instance, human-orca parallels are easy to draw as the interconnectedness amongst individuals is undeniable, social structure is a necessity, communication is key, and culture is unmistakable. There are resident orcas, transient orcas, and offshore orcas that have developed specialized skills to fill a niche and capitalize on available prey.  Even more interesting is the fact that marine biologists believe the residents and transients have been genetically isolated from each other  for the last 10,000 years.

And as the information continued to flow throughout the program, I was reminded why I forego any invitation to attend an amusement park showcasing orcas.  Every documentary I have seen shows nothing less than incredible intelligence as members of a pod utilize teamwork to raise their young and ensure the survival of the group. Plus, most ironically, these are the same characteristics that trainers pass along to cheering crowds as if morality dictates 5 tons of sophisticated ocean-going genius must be confined within concrete walls and rollercoaster backdrops solely for our entertainment.  Yes, I see the Victorian era pseudoscience logic (i.e. money), but shouldn’t we officially abandon a thought process that exterminated the great auk?

After poking around the web, I found a few bits of herring (PBS, Wikipedia, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Humane Society) that indicate the captive population is just about 50 and the capturing of wild orcas has declined in favor of captive breeding programs and artificial insemination. But, the argument still stands and is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode,  People Are Alike All Over , in which Roddy McDowall as Captain Conrad lands on Mars and the welcoming inhabitants eventually put him on public display.  Just because the most basic of needs are met does not replace freedom…ask Captain Conrad who was confined to an unnatural environment forced to live in a life of deprivation and most certainly suffering a lower than expected lifespan.  Does that ring the captive orca bell?

As a note: Since 1961 there has been 133 orcas captured and acquired by aquariums.To the best estimate, as of November 1997, 102 of the 133 captured killer whales in marine parks and aquariums worldwide have died.  One escaped.  30 are still alive, and a further 18 captive-bred are also alive. (PBS FrontLine, Nov. 1997)

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Scott Artis
Scott serves as Director of Development & Communications for Audubon Canyon Ranch (focusing on preservation, education and conservation science) and has almost fifteen years of experience spanning for-profit and nonprofit sectors in biotech, wildlife conservation and management, communications, and philanthropy. In addition to a strong track record in organizational growth and leadership, he is the founder of Urban Bird Foundation and Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, and presided over ECHO Fund, a coastal protection and restoration organization, as President for four years. Scott holds an M.A. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Development and Policy, degrees in Micro & Molecular Biology and Environmental Sciences, and has complemented his studies with a Master's certificate in Environmental Resource Management.



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