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Aquariums vital to wild creatures' well-being: My Word

MoviesPeople for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

When SeaWorld announced an expansion of its killer-whale habitats, no one was surprised when PETA and other fringe activists pounced on the news. Those of us who work with, study, rescue and care for animals know that nothing will ever satisfy these groups, short of turning loose any and all animals in human care.

Let me be clear: Blindly releasing zoological whales into the wild is a dangerous, irresponsible approach that would imperil not only those animals but the future of all wildlife.

We need only look to the tragic experiment to release Keiko, the whale whose story inspired the movie "Free Willy." Spurred by the film, people donated millions of dollars to fund his release.

Unfortunately, the project was led by animal-rights activists who were not only ill-prepared to manage such an undertaking, but were unrelentingly focused on a single outcome — releasing Keiko to the wild — despite overwhelming evidence that this whale could not survive there. Sadly, Keiko suffered a slow and physiologically punishing death at their hands.

Today, more than a decade after Keiko's death, animal-rights groups like PETA continue to push that same agenda. In the face of the largest killer-whale expansion in SeaWorld's history, PETA's mantra remains the same. As someone who has worked with whales and dolphins for nearly three decades, I can't sit on the sidelines while these groups hijack the conversation and mislead the public.

What most people don't understand is that zoos and aquariums play a critical role in the health and well-being of animals in the wild. They employ some of the best and brightest veterinarians, researchers and behaviorists who work closely with animals every day.

Their work helps us understand species' physiological and cognitive needs so that when the time comes to help these animals in the wild, we're ready.

The next time there's a marine mammal stranded, pay attention to who's leading the rescue: It will be a zoological facility. The next time there's an oil spill, find out who's guiding wildlife management: It will be a zoological facility. It's only because of these organizations' missions that animals in the wild have a chance of survival.

Let's give credit where credit's due.

Mark Simmons, author of "Killing Keiko," is a former SeaWorld trainer and was director of the animal behavior team for the Free Willy/Keiko Release Project.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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