A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Bernie, Belugas and the Home Depot

“Whew,” Bernie Marcus mutters to himself. “As long as everyone’s talking about SeaWorld, they won’t be coming after my Georgia Aquarium. At least not for the next few weeks.”

Bernie, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, donated $250 million to create the Georgia Aquarium. He calls it charity. The animals there call it a prison. And two weeks ago, yet another beluga whale dropped dead there.

When 21-year-old Maris suddenly started behaving oddly and wouldn’t respond to her trainers, the other whales gathered around her. When she came to the surface and rolled over, staff jumped in and rushed her off to the medical pool. But within a few minutes it was all over.

Later, we learned that Maris had had an ultrasound exam that same morning. The aquarium won’t say why. Did they think she was pregnant again?

Earlier this year, Maris gave birth to her second baby. Less than a month later, the infant died. Her first baby had done even worse; she survived less than a week.

Both times, the Georgia Aquarium professed complete mystery as to what had happened. But Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center, who studies the brains of dolphins, says those earlier deaths were no mystery.

It’s a classic case of the well-known medical condition Failure to Thrive Syndrome. FTTS is seen in human children and other animals (it’s known as Fading Puppy and Kitten Syndrome in dogs and cats) when they fail to develop normally both physically and mentally.

… In the wild, female belugas choose when and with whom they want to mate. Their calves remain close to them for 4-5 years or more, during which time a daughter learns from her mother and from other experienced females in the group how to become a mother and raise her own children.

When she eventually gives birth, other females in the extended family are present to assist in forming protected and caring nursery groups. This is beluga whale culture. These are the circumstances to which these whales have adapted over millions of years and that they need in order to thrive.

Maris has never known beluga culture. She was born at the New York Aquarium to a mother who had been taken from her own family when she was a youngster herself.

As if they’re all just interchangeable parts in one of Bernie Marcus’s Home Depot supply chains.Maris was housed with other belugas who’d been taken from their families, too. Then she was transported no less than five times in and out of different facilities. When she landed at the Georgia Aquarium, she was put together with a male who was on loan from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago so she could be bred.

As if they’re all just interchangeable parts in one of Bernie Marcus’s Home Depot supply chains.

For Maris, there was no autonomy, no continuity, and no opportunity to develop within a natural social and physical environment. She and her two infants were all born into an entirely unnatural world, one to which they are not adapted.

Marine mammal experts say it’s quite possible that Maris simply decided to stop living. Whales and dolphins can do that. They’re “voluntary breathers”, meaning that, unlike us humans, they can just stop breathing if they want to. Trainer-turned-activist Ric O’Barry is certain that’s what one of the dolphins he was training in Florida did back in the 1970s.

“Kathy looked me right in the eye,” he said. “Then she took a breath, and then never took another one. She sank to the bottom of the tank. I jumped in and got her to the surface and tried to revive her but she was gone at that point.”

Could Maris, too, have decided she didn’t want to go on living in a tank, doing tricks for squealing audiences, giving birth over and over, only to see her beloved babies die in front of her? Dr. Marino again:

Studies of welfare in captive belugas support the assertion that belugas cannot live, let alone thrive, in a setting in which they never evolved. In captivity their lives are shorter and mortality rates are higher. They often die of stress-related diseases which break down their immune system function. They fail to thrive.

So, when the veterinarians and staff at the Georgia Aquarium claim to be flummoxed over the death of two infant belugas, they need look no further than any basic marine mammal ecology textbook to find the answer to why belugas will never thrive in theme parks.

The veils of contrived mystery disperse even more when you consider that the Georgia Aquarium is in the middle of a fight with the National Marine & Fisheries Service, which has denied it a permit to import 18 more belugas from Russia. The Aquarium argues that it wants to study how to create better conservation programs. (That sounds a bit rich when they can’t even conserve the ones they have in captivity.)

All in all, then, Bernie Marcus and his pals must be quite relieved that, at least for now, the major media are focused on SeaWorld rather than on the Georgia Aquarium.

But it won’t last. The faster things keep going downhill at SeaWorld, the more it means that the writing is on the wall for all these sea circuses. This week, the Washington Post editorialized that:

It’s all part of a trend that both entertainment industry experts and animal rights advocates say has emerged in recent years: People are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the animal-as-performer paradigm. They really want Willy to be free.

And in The Guardian, Philip Hoare argued that keeping these animals in captivity not only demeans them; it demeans us, too:

We love them because they are clearly intelligent, because they are sleek, hydrodynamic, fantasy versions of ourselves, because we can put them in a tank and have them perform for our entertainment. The graphic beauty of an orca has a cartoon quality: it looks like an object as much as an animal. And so we objectify it.

The closeness of the distance between our species and theirs is both intimate and unbridgeable. And so we punish them for the sin of being free.

If folks like Bernie Marcus want to do something charitable for humans, they need to remember that harming other kinds of animals doesn’t make us better people.