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William Trently: It’s time to move beyond aquariums, touch tanks and dissection

  • A visitor to the New England Aquarium reaches to touch a ray swimming in an exhibit called a touch tank at the aquarium in Boston in 2011. AP file



For the Monitor
Monday, June 11, 2018

So there are aquariums and touch tanks at science centers and entertainment venues throughout the land. Many host educational activities for kids, such as fun games or marine animal dissection.

Often I’ve patronized restaurants that feature a huge fish tank decorating the reception area. Lolita, the orca at the Miami Seaquarium, performed twice for me. My formal education included the dissection of a shark, a cat, a human. I have always loved educational science-oriented centers, and my children have enjoyed the touch tanks and other exhibits.

Over the years, however, I have come to frown on aquariums, touch tanks and traditional dissection. I now see a tragic unfairness in the way animals are treated by humans. I am not alone in that understanding; with the rise of social media and more open communication worldwide, there are growing numbers of like-minded individuals. A sampling of this way of thinking follows below.

With all the stresses inflicted upon marine animals by human activity, why add to them unnecessarily by harvesting squids for dissection when alternative methods are available, such as virtual dissection? Why disrupt their ecosystem further if we don’t need to? And why go through with what can often be a horrific journey for these animals, stolen from their everyday normal lives into traps and temporary storage and transported to some place to be killed for the dissection table? Is it worth it? Are the benefits we are deriving from the exploitation of these creatures fair to them and worth the sacrifice?

I’ve seen, in my experiences, how frivolously these “props” can often be treated – sometimes by an individual who could not really care less to learn the anatomic details, who fails to derive much from the academic exercise (to me, a form of disrespect to the sacrificed living being), only to have the wasted specimen subsequently gathered up and discarded.

I think realistic, man-made models or computer simulators would be a better way to go.

And I am sure these venues’ staff members are dedicated and caring toward the live animals under their watch. And it must be hard to believe anyone would be opposed to an aquarium exhibit where kids could put their hands on a starfish and learn about conserving natural resources while being mesmerized by beautiful exotic fish swimming endlessly back and forth.

But the various aquariums and touch tanks accentuating the fruited landscape swim against the current of human history, for throughout the world over the last decades has been a trend to eliminate zoos and aquariums – as a form of growing respect and compassion toward other species and a rejection of capture and confinement.

The way to view wildlife is to stop destroying their habitats and patiently seek them out to watch them in their own homes, an invaluable advantage folks living in the wilder places have, with the abundance of creatures and global economy-availability of diving gear and hiking boots.

An aquarium or zoo represents a lazy man’s way to selfishly “bring it all to me,” a “canned” experience. It’s like viewing some cheap, fake reality TV show.

As I said before, I truly appreciate science centers and want them to remain a cornerstone of the cultural scene. My prediction is that the pressure to change will just increase in the years ahead, and so it may be better for these institutions to act proactively, to be leaders into the future and set an example for other facilities and children. Perhaps many of these places are already aware of alternatives and are taking measures to implement them. If so, that is to be applauded.

I hope they may evolve with me and so many other people who also believe a new paradigm is needed.

(William Trently of Stratham is a board member of the New Hampshire Animal Rights League.)