Rebuttal: Thinking Critically About Anti-zoo Images

Recently, you may have seen that sources like the Washington Post, The Guardian, and IFLScience published stories about a book released by a Canadian photographer who traveled across Europe photographing animals in zoological facilities. Now, I won’t speak out against said book as I have not read it and, therefore, it would be improper of me to do so.

However, I will speak about some of the images found in the aforementioned articles. More importantly, I’m going to ask you to think critically about them and this situation. So take a moment to click on the links above and glance over the some of the images we’ll discuss.

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Photo of a polar bear playing in its beautiful exhibit at the San Diego Zoo to start us out on the right note.

Okay, ready? Good.

If the articles and interviews promoting the book are any indication, the photographer has published a biased, one-sided view of the life of animals in human care. At first glance, most of the photos seem haunting, telling of a captive animal’s endlessly depressed state, complete and total lack of stimulation, or inadequate living environment.

Judging from comments via social media, some members of the public were, in fact, disturbed by the images. But, I am here to remind you that while the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, what is not pictured is worth at least twice as much.

I’ll start by reminding you that the images captured and featured in these articles only display a fraction of that animal’s day.

According to the ever-reliable internet, a standard DSL camera can take a picture in roughly 1/8000th of a second. That means that each image captured and featured portrays exactly 0.000125 seconds of that animal’s day (PS. That’s WAY faster than a human being even And being that there are over 86,000 seconds in a day, each photo portrays a negligible percentage of not only that animal’s day, but also an infinitely tiny, microscopically minuscule fraction of the animal’s lifetime.

I could keep going with all of the mathematics, I suppose, but instead of boring you, I’ll encourage you to ask yourself: What happened during the rest of the day?

Is the reason the jaguar is right in front of the glass because his keepers put scent enrichment on the window to stimulate his olfactory senses?

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(This image was featured in article by the Washington Post. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Are these three arctic wolves lazily laying on their platform because they just spent an hour scouring their exhibit for the pieces of food their caretakers painstakingly placed in order to encourage foraging behavior?

When the dolphin in The Guardian article finished the interaction with the guests, was he or she given his or her favorite toy for the rest of the afternoon?

Now, I can almost hear some of you screaming at me, “You’re just making that up!” So, let me say that I understand that there is no proof that these things took place. But, while I have no proof that it did happen, you have no proof that it did not. These activities are absolutely possibilities being that zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are required to provide animals in their collections.

So, this is where I am asking you to think critically.

If I had taken a picture of you at 3:43pm today, what were you doing during that minute? Were you sitting at your desk? Were you mowing the yard? Were you napping on the couch to the drone of a television? Is what you were doing at 3:43pm today an accurate representation of your entire existence? Is it the only activity you ever do?

No.

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It is not accurate to assume from this photo that this is the only behavior that this woman ever displays. Nor is it accurate to assume this is the only location in which she spends time. (photo from health.usnews.com)

Just because you were creating an Excel spreadsheet during that moment, does that inherently mean that you did not play video games at some other point during the day?

If you were mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the time, does that mean that you never play catch in the backyard with your son or daughter?

Were you biting your nails out of boredom? Does that mean you are never entertained by or interested in any other activity?

Regardless of who you are or what you were doing, the behavior you displayed at 3:43pm this afternoon is not a reflection of your existence as a whole.

Now, ask yourself: Why?

Why are the lechwe antelope from the Washington Post article indoors? Are you sure that this where they are kept all of the time? Or were they moved inside temporarily while their exhibit was renovated? Do they have access to an outdoor habitat as well as the one pictured so they have a choice between the two? Is it winter and the temperature outside is currently unsuitable for them? Were they moved inside to wait for a storm to pass? All are viable and realistic options.

tigers

(This photo was featured in the Washington Post. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Why are the tigers in this French zoo peering out of their exhibit on their tiptoes? Was this photo taken first thing in the morning when the keepers are bringing them their breakfast? Is it all of a sudden disgraceful for a carnivore, or any individual animal or person for that matter, to look forward to eating? If so, I know some humans that should be very worried. Are their keepers bringing them a new toy and they can see them approaching? Is their excitement and anticipation disgusting? If it is, I guess we humans can’t be enthusiastic toward Christmas anymore.

Here’s one that I’m going to throw into this category because I have your attention and for the life of me I do not understand this: Why is it that every couple of years a photo of an animal sleeping at a zoo goes viral and is labeled as ‘depressing’? WHY???

frog

(This photo was featured in The Guardian. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Why is it that an image of a sleeping tree frog is meant to be ‘haunting’? Animals sleep no matter where they live. Lions sleep on the plains of Africa. Seals sleep near the shores of Maine. Tapirs sleep in the jungles of Malaysia. And, yes, they sleep in zoos too.

This is literally a fact: animals sleep.

If I take a picture of your dog sleeping at the foot of your bed, I have no evidence that your dog is not properly cared for. I only have evidence that he or she sleeps. That’s not profound. Neither is your picture of a sleeping walrus.

There. Now that it’s been discussed, ask yourself a tough one: Am I seeing only what they want me to see?

In what way could I have been manipulated into thinking worse about a situation?

The oldest trick in the book is to change a colorful image to that of only black and white. We as humans naturally associate bright colors with happiness and joy, but associate dull or dark shades and shadows with sadness or dreariness. What would the image look like if it had not been doctored?

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It took me all of twenty seconds to add a black and white filter to this image to make this little bird’s life look less vibrant.

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This is the original image I took of a weaver at home in a free-flight aviary at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Another favorite used by anti-zoo propagandists is simple: cropping and framing. What was going on outside of what the photographer published? Just because only one animal is in the frame, does not mean he or she was the only one in the exhibit. And just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean there weren’t toys in the environment. Though it might not be included in the image, you cannot prove that there is no fresh water or food for the animal to drink and eat. Even amateur, Instagram-only photographers show solely what they want their audiences to see.

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First of all- this gorilla is SLEEPING on some kind of straw substrate. That is all this image shows. It does not speak to the well-being of this gorilla, the adequacy of the exhibit, or the number of animals that accompany this individual. Just around the corner, in fact, in this several-acre exhibit, the rest of the troop foraged for food. The pictures below were taken within just a couple minutes of the picture above at AZA-accredited Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL.

 

I write this post not to shame this photographer, not to blindly defend these zoos from which the images originated, nor to stop you from raising questions about animals in captivity. I say this to remind you that anti-zoo propaganda is often manipulative and without balance. It is also nothing new and will happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, zoos are not perfect entities. And the people who work with animals in zoos know that. That’s why they’re constantly striving toward being better tomorrow than they were today.

What is often left out of the anti-zoo sentiment is that modern zoos dedicated to rescue, education, and conservation deserve a lot of praise. Species like the Przewalski’s horse, black-footed ferret, California condor, and more would be extinct without them. Hundreds of individual manatees, thousands of pinnipeds, and hundreds of thousands of birds have a second chance at life because they were rescued and rehabilitated at zoos. Every year, zoos donate millions of dollars to conservation projects around the world to try to ensure a future for endangered species. Scientists and researchers are even working with zoos to try to salvage functionally-extinct species through groundbreaking scientific techniques.

If you believe the public should have the opportunity to learn about animals, that individual animals deserve a second chance after injury or illness, and that the extinction of entire species is not an acceptable option, then don’t let these images fool you.

If you believe these things, you are a supporter of zoos.

 

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Vancouver Board Makes Irresponsible Decision for Whales and Dolphins

Two days ago, on March 9th, the Vancouver Aquarium’s role in conservation, rescue and rehabilitation, and research was forever altered after the Vancouver City Park’s board voted to prohibit the housing of cetacean species, which includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums called the decision “troubling”. And, in a politically correct world they’re right. But, let’s not be politically correct for a second. Let’s be blunt. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call this ultimatum what it really is: irresponsible.

The Vancouver Aquarium has been a major contributor to cetacean research and conservation for the last fifty years. Notable projects include data collection of killer whale vocalizations, the metabolic rates of pacific white-sided dolphins, communication patterns between beluga mothers and offspring, echolocation abilities of multiple species, and the rescue and rehabilitation of several whales, dolphins, and porpoises, three of which still call the Vancouver Aquarium home.

Currently, the Aquarium houses only three cetaceans, Helen (Pacific white-sided dolphin), Chester (false killer whale), and Daisy (harbor porpoise). ALL of which were RESCUED.

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Helen (foreground) and Chester interacting with members of their care team. (Image from vanaqua.org)

So, let’s walk through this step by step with Daisy as an example. Stranded for unknown reasons in 2008, Daisy was rescued as a one-month old calf suffering from severe dehydration, emaciation, and muscle loss. At first, she was so weak and malnourished, she did not have the ability to hold herself up in the water, let alone swim. After nearly a year of rehabilitation, during which time the Vancouver Aquarium’s animal care staff members gave her the best possible support through their knowledge and expertise, Daisy beat epically long odds and thrived. Deemed non-releasable due to the fact that she never learned to hunt and survive in the wild, the Vancouver Aquarium became her permanent home in 2009.

In the years that she’s lived at the Vancouver Aquarium since, Daisy’s story has touched hundreds of thousands of people. She’s helped educate the public about her species through presentations called “Porpoise Talks”, connected and interacted with guests as she displays her curious side, and participated in research studies that have helped reveal details about porpoises that are assisting researchers and conservationists in saving multiple cetacean species today.

Her journey also mattered when Levi, an adult male harbor porpoise stranded several years later in March of 2013. In the same way Daisy was not able to support herself in the water, neither was Levi, and in similar fashion to the previous situation, the experts at the Aquarium fashioned a custom-made raft and cared for him during his several months of rehabilitation. As he improved, Levi became a candidate for return to the wild. And, in September of 2013, six months after he was found stranded on the shore of Saanich Inlet, Levi was swimming in the ocean again.

But with the foolish decision made just two days ago, successful stories like Levi’s and Daisy’s, stories of survival and scientific progress, will become few and far between, if not completely nonexistent.

What happens next time? When an animal flounders, in need of help, who will be there to assist? Where will that animal go? Without the Vancouver Aquarium, which is one of Canada’s only teams with the expertise and availability  to save stranded cetaceans, the next time a porpoise, dolphin, or whale strands, that injured/ill animal will have to be transported several hours to the next rehabilitation center *IF* there is one available. And let’s hope there is, because the only other option is for the animal to be euthanized by drug or bolt gun.

There are repercussions for the actions set forth by this reckless decision. This vote, made for political reasons alone, in hopes to appease the, admittedly loud, but small, unqualified minority, is a setback in the scientific study of cetaceans and also jeopardizes the lives of future animals in distress.

Yet, while I am angry and distressed by those consequences, as all cetacean-lovers should be, I am not surprised that the board caved to aforementioned uninformed protestors.

We live in a blind society that values unscientific, short-sighted philosophies more than the wellbeing of individual animals and entire species.

We live in a society where documentary filmmakers attempt to damage and dismantle reputable zoological facilities with lies and twisted information without considering what that means for future distressed and stranded animals.

A society where the same soccer mom who condemns and vows to boycott world-renowned aquariums on Twitter also hypocritically demands “rescue the dolphin!”, not understanding how the same professional entities they choose to attack are needed in order to give that animal a future of any kind.

A society where PETA finds the money to brandish billboards with crass images and grossly tactless misinformation to slander the zoological community’s hard-working, well-educated animal care specialists who have dedicated their lives to reviving individual animals and researching whole species, and yet donates NOT A SINGLE DIME to cetacean rescue, research, or conservation.

Meanwhile, accredited organizations like the Vancouver Aquarium, are actively participating in research and conservation that directly benefits killer whales, belugas, harbor porpoises, and the most endangered marine mammal in the world: the vaquita.

In fact, some of the acoustic research conducted by researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium with the help of Daisy, is currently being used to help locate the remaining thirty individuals of the elusive vaquita species in hopes of bolstering the population and bringing them back from the very edge of extinction.

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Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue team at work. (Image from vanaqua.org)

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are intriguing, charismatic animals, and as such, have garnered adoration and attention from many. Shutting down reputable zoos and aquariums, organizations that help research, conserve, and rescue animals is not helpful.

It’s harmful.

However, it is admirable to want to make a difference. Zoos and aquariums encourage and need your help, because when animals and species are in need, very rarely do the loudmouthed armchair-activists actually show up.

So, help.

Save the dolphins. Recycle discarded fishing line. Choose reusable bags instead of plastic when you go to the grocery store. Volunteer as part of a marine mammal rescue team.

Save the porpoises. Donate to VaquitaCPR. Refuse to participate in balloon releases. Organize a beach cleanup.

Save the whales. Eat sustainable seafood when you’re ordering fish at a restaurant. Visit a responsible zoo or aquarium involved in rescue, research, and conservation programs. And then, teach others how to care for them too.

We all have the power to make a difference for these animals, but it should be the right kind of difference. It should be one based on science. It should be one based on correct, factual information. It should be a responsible one full of action that benefits them now and in the future.

So, for the love of cetaceans, choose to make the right difference and pass it on.

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Daisy. (Image from vanaqua.org)

[Correction: This post originally identified the Vancouver Aquarium’s board as the entity that voted on the prohibition of cetaceans. This is incorrect as the decision was, in fact, made by the Vancouver City Park board which controls the property currently leased by the accredited aquarium and this post has been changed to reflect that fact.]

 

Make Conservation Your New Year’s Resolution

Conservation is at the core of the modern zoo and aquarium. They rehabilitate oiled penguins in South Africa, breed and release black-footed ferrets to the great plains of North America, and actively help researchers study wild populations of rhinoceroses in Southeast Asia, among SO MANY other amazing efforts that benefit wildlife.

Zoos also play an instrumental role in reminding those of us who are not avian, mustelid, or ungulate keepers that we still play a big part in conservation.

So, let’s start the New Year off right by making an impact at home!

Switch from Plastic Bags to Reusable Ones

According to the Earth Policy Institute, roughly two million single-use plastic bags are used per minute worldwide. Unfortunately, as many of these bags make their way to ocean shores and other waterways, animals ingest them or become entangled. Some estimate that nearly a million seabirds and one hundred thousand other marine animals like sea turtles, porpoises, and seals die every year from these discarded bags. In fact, members of more than 260 species have directly suffered as a result.

This year, when you’re asked at a grocery store, “Are plastic bags okay?” have reusable bags ready.

You can purchase these reusable bags fairly cheap and choose from a variety of styles from EcoBags or support small businesses and creativity by choosing Etsy. You can even create your own bags using photos of your kids, your favorite vacation spot, or, if you’re like me, your favorite animal using Walgreen’s Photo Center.

If the average American family consumes around sixty plastic bags after just four grocery trips, then in roughly one year, you’ll have saved nearly a thousand plastic bags!

Say “No” to Straws

Plastic straws are small enough to swallow and can become wedged in animals throats. Other times, they are fully ingested, but, once in the stomach, not digestible. And, as you can see in the video above, they can cause other injuries and discomfort by becoming lodged in other areas of an animal’s body.

An estimated five hundred million plastic straws are used in the United States every day. That means, every day, we could line up those straws end to end and circle earth two and a half times! That’s sixty two thousand two hundred fifty two and a half miles!

Because they’re a single-use plastic, each ends up being discarded at the end of the day. In fact, ninety percent of ocean pollution is made of plastic and straws rank in the top ten marine debris items.

So, while we expect straws to be delivered to us every time we order a drink, they’re not necessary. This year, politely tell your waiter or barista “No straw, please” when ordering. If you’re someone who really likes to have a straw while enjoying your peach smoothie (yum!), you can buy and use metal (my personal choice), bamboo, or paper straws. All of which are better for the environment than the plastic version.

Eat Sustainable Seafood

You know that phrase, “there are plenty of fish in the sea”? Well, it actually depends on the type of fish.

Nearly 70% of fish species are fully-fished or over-fished and some fish species struggle to repopulate in a way that keeps up with human demand. In other cases, humans consume the same fish that ocean predators like sea lions, sharks, or killer whales need in order to survive which leads to displaced and/or starving individuals.

Choosing to eat seafood from sustainable sources benefits the ocean ecosystem as a whole because sustainable fisheries provide fish from species that replenish their populations quickly and do their best to limit the impacts on wild species populations and ecosystems.

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Photo Credit: seafoodwatch.org

The best way to get in a habit of choosing sustainable seafood is by downloading the Monterey Bay Aquarium app called Seafood Watch which can give you easy access to information about good choices, best choices, and choices that you should avoid altogether.

As new information on the species’ populations become available, the app updates so that you’re always making decisions based on the most current information. When ordering at a restaurant or doing your own shopping, use the app to understand which choices are most beneficial for the oceans’ well-being.

Stick With It

Join zoos and aquariums in the fight to make the world a better place. There will be days that your impact will seem small, but it matter. Your commitment means one less bag floating on the sea, one less straw in a bird’s stomach, and one more chance to contribute to ocean health.

Don’t forget to share your success and dedication with others and encourage them to do the same because as Ryunosuke Satoro said, “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”

 

Cheers to All of the Zookeepers

Cheers to the zookeepers among you.

To the people who wake up early, long before the sun rises to begin preparing the animals’ diets in the always-clean commissary. To the ones that rinse lettuce and kale for the sulcata tortoises, roll raw meatballs for the Sumatran tigers, and load bales of hay and alfalfa into wheelbarrows and trucks for the Grevy’s Zebras, white rhinoceroses, and Thomson’s gazelle that all share the same sprawling exhibit. Cheers to you who cut up squash and sweet potatoes just the way that the picky eleven-year-old three-toed sloth prefers. To those who hand feed the Magellanic penguins individual capelin to make sure each of the fourteen birds gets their fill.

 

Here’s to the keepers who scuba dive among sandbar sharks, cownose stingrays, lookdowns, and hogfish, scrubbing algae from rocks, and wiping down acrylic windows. In just a couple hours, little guests will press their hands against them and gaze upon animals that they may have never seen before, and may never get the chance to see anywhere else.

To the keepers who wipe sweat from their brows and shove hair out of their faces as they rake, shovel, and hose every inch of the animals’ exhibits, thank you. To those of you who do so every day in the searing summer heat of Arizona, in the unforgiving winters of South Dakota, the torrential downpours of Florida, and everywhere else, thank you.

Thanks to all of the keepers who crawl into small spaces and climb up onto wooden towers to implement enrichment opportunities, changes in the animals’ environment meant to mentally and physically stimulate them. Cheers to the keepers who stuff fruit chunks in nooks and crannies for the ring-tailed lemurs to encourage natural foraging. To those keepers who give the giant panda cubs boxes to tumble around with, and watch the serval rub his face in and curl his lips at the scent of cumin, and turn on the firehose for a curious herd of Asian elephants.

 

Thank you to all of the zookeepers who spend time between cleaning and feeding, logging behavioral observations of the animals you have come to know so well. Who notice if the aging western lowland silverback is favoring his left shoulder more today than yesterday, or if the female pygmy hippopotamus slept in a different spot than she usually does, or if the recently-introduced colobus monkey is on the outs from the rest of the group. Thanks to all of the keepers who record all of the nuances, looking for both usual patterns as well as the anomalies, never skipping over a single detail.

Thank you to the keepers who train animals to offer conditioned husbandry behaviors. To those who teach the African lionesses to lay quietly for their routine blood draws, who reward the bonobos with juice for allowing a veterinarian to sonogram them, and administer eye drops to a harbor seal that has been taught to tilt its head to the left, then the right, so that restraint is never required for its routine care. These behaviors are beneficial and potentially life-saving, but are not learned overnight. So, cheers to the keepers who spend months, sometimes years, training these behaviors through positive reinforcement, each time rewarding the animal with something they seem to enjoy like a special treat, a rub behind the ears, or their favorite toy.

 

If you’re not a zookeeper, say thank you to a one today. These people, who studied in universities and colleges for years, fought and clawed for competitive seasonal internships and even more competitive permanent positions, are actually paid very little for a job that is very important.

They show up hours late to dates with their significant others because they’re standing by for the birth of a pacific white-sided dolphin calf and the mom just went into labor.

They call their children over the phone at bedtime instead of sitting next to them, reading through a picture book because they’ve been asked to stay late to care for a tawny frogmouth that suffered a seizure earlier.

They wake up in the middle of the night when the phone rings and rush out to rescue a half dozen manatees that somehow ended up stuck in a drain pipe.

They spend the Fourth of July, not at neighborhood barbeques, but teaching children in neon shirts at summer camps how to help save sea turtles even if they live a thousand miles from the ocean.

They miss Christmas with their families because they’re dressed up as whooping cranes, hoping the chicks who are fooled by the costumes will eventually be released into the wild, helping to save their species.

They embrace the enormous responsibility of trying to save the California condor, the Scimitar-horned oryx, and the black-footed ferret. They’re trying to save the world, one animal, one species, one visitor at a time.

They teach the small children perched atop fathers’ shoulders why it is important to drink from reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones. They reveal to the middle schoolers on field trips what the continued farming for palm oil may mean for the plight of Bornean orangutans. They ask the adults to make the switch to sustainable seafood to benefit entire ocean ecosystems.

They try to teach people who saw a chimpanzee mother and baby lounging in the grass, or fed a giraffe a leaf a lettuce from their own hands, or watched two polar bears trying to sink a floating barrel to care for the wild counterparts of these beloved ambassadors.

They get dirty. They go home sore. They wake up tired and do it all over again.

They rescue. They teach. They care. And, they hope at the end of every day, that you to care too.

So, to all of the zookeepers out there: an enormous thank you for all you do and happy National Zookeeper Week! Hope it was a great one.

Georgia Aquarium Paves the Way in Understanding Whale Sharks

A Piece of Ocean in a Landlocked City

The Georgia Aquarium, the largest aquarium of its kind in the world, opened its doors in late 2005 as a gift to the people of Atlanta from the co-founder of Home Depot, Bernard “Bernie” Marcus. Determined to bring the ocean 300 miles inland to the metropolis capital of this southern state in which his company originated, Marcus donated 250 million dollars to the venture, declaring that this facility would educate visitors of all ages about the animal world, promoting “stewardship in conservation”.

Quickly becoming one of Atlanta’s most popular attractions, the Georgia Aquarium is the only facility in the western hemisphere to house whale sharks. The largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks can grow to be over thirty feet long and weigh roughly twenty tons, and the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit boasts four of these animals.

Dinner Is Served

While imposing in size, this animal is a filter feeder, meaning that it scoops small fish and plankton, but not much else is on the menu. In fact, though these animals’ mouths can be up to four feet wide, the size and shape of their esophagus inhibits them from swallowing anything larger than a quarter.

Open Wide!

Open Wide!

These feeding restrictions and habits have forced the aquarists at the aquarium to implement some rather unique techniques when lunchtime rolls around. The sharks’ caretakers cannot simply toss buckets of food into the water and cross their fingers that each individual gets its share. Every ounce of food for each animal is calculated every day and is prepared with the same accuracy in cleanliness that your food is in a restaurant. The USDA even evaluates and inspects the kitchen, which, in the zoological world, is called a commissary.

The sharks also lack the ability to sit in front of the aquarists with its head tilted upwards waiting for an afternoon snack. Whale sharks must constantly be on the move as it is this movement that forces water into their mouths and over their gills, giving them the ability to breathe.

Being that the sharks cannot be stationary, at feeding time, the aquarists climb into inflatable boats and use what could be described as shark-sized spoons to deliver a mixture of krill, shrimp, and nutrient-rich gel to each shark as it swims alongside. The hardworking aquarists use a cable or line system to pull themselves, the food mixture, the very large utensil, and, of course, the boat across the exhibit (which is about as long as a football field). Alice, Trixie, Yushan, and Taroko, the four whale sharks at the aquarium have been trained to follow their own boats, each only being fed from a specific “lane”. This activity occurs several times a day and, in total, the whale sharks are offered nearly twenty thousand pounds of food each year!

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.  Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.
Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

Researching Further

Not only does each shark get a specific diet, tailored just for them, but for each animal in its care, the Georgia Aquarium develops a healthcare plan to ensure their residents’ wellbeing. For the whale sharks, that means a variety of data collections, including behavior analysis, body measurements, and blood draws.

Because the Georgia Aquarium is in the unique position of being one of the only aquariums to care for and study these animals (the only one outside of Asia), it has the opportunity to research and discover many “firsts” that help us learn more about the specifics of this species.

For example, it was the first in the world to study and assess the biochemistry of whale sharks. By comparing the serums of healthy animals to those of unhealthy animals, researchers from the Georgia Aquarium were able to determine that certain markers in a whale shark’s blood could indicate its general health. Implementing a science known as metabolomics, which involves identifying substances necessary for metabolism, and using advanced technology such as a mass spectrometer, the researchers discovered that the metabolite homarine, as well as twenty-five more compounds, was a meaningful indicator in evaluating the health of a whale shark.

Now, that’s a lot of aquarist/biologist/shark-expert jargon (and, if you understood, feel free to read more about it here), but basically, what that means is that, not only does this information assist those who work with these animals every day, but it also has the ability to aid the scientific community in the field as they continue the attempt to conserve this species.

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s red list, whale sharks are still hunted in some parts of the world. The Georgia Aquarium acquired its four sharks from Taiwan, a country that, at one time, killed sixty whale sharks in one year, but has now reduced that figure to zero. The government of Taiwan has since partnered with the Georgia Aquarium in hopes of leading as an example for other countries to follow suit in whale shark conservation.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

Conducting research on whale sharks in the wild is no easy task. The whale shark population continues to trend downward and scientists still know very little about their ecology, including growth rates, longevity, and migration patterns. The Georgia Aquarium is not only doing research on property, where the Ocean Voyager exhibit provides the opportunity to observe these animals as researchers learn about their growth rates, age at maturity, and behavioral tendencies, but also in the field, as they have become official partners with Project Domino, an organization that uses satellite tags to track individual sharks. Early studies have shown that one individual traveled over eight thousand miles, a journey that took more than three years to complete.

Let’s Do Our Part!

If you are interested in the Georgia Aquarium and their research projects revolving around whale sharks, there are a couple ways you can help. The Georgia Aquarium, which is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, relies on the public’s support through donations and attendance. So, one way to help is to go and witness these animals up close. You can even learn about these animals from a diver while he/she is inside the exhibit!

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale shark swims overhead.

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate
with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale
shark swims overhead.

But, there are even more immersive ways to learn! If standing outside the habitat still feels too far away, you can get even closer by snorkeling or scuba diving inside the exhibit.

Thank you for being interested in whale shark research, of which so much could not have been conducted without the help and expertise of the Georgia Aquarium.

And, of course, thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

Georgia Aquarium’s Whale Shark Research

Whale Shark Guide

Georgia Aquarium’s Research Team Studying in Mexico