Getting a greener generation to buy into the aquarium

Here are some words that appeared in this column in November 1990: "The National Aquarium and its promoters are out to lunch. They don't have a clue. Their facility is better called the National Anachronism. The new Marine Mammal Pavilion, featuring captured dolphins in a huge tank of water, does not belong to the times in which we are living. It belongs to the times from which we just emerged. It belongs to the age of P.T. Barnum."

That was my protest of the National Aquarium's $35 million investment in a big dolphin tank with an amphitheater so dolphins with cute names could perform up to six daily shows.

It was a protest against keeping marine mammals, including beluga whales, in captivity for the entertainment of humans — a blatant effort, 10 years into the aquarium's existence, to capture new tourist dollars under the guise of "public education."

Mostly, it was a lament for a lost opportunity to respond to an emerging generation of young men and women who were excited by the aquarium's conservation mission but turned off by its dolphin circus.

In response to my questioning of the dolphin tank, I received some criticism, mainly from men and women who had worked at the aquarium or volunteered there, or from professional trainers of dolphins and whales. These people, who had considerable self-interest in the future of marine mammal shows, claimed dolphins were better off in concrete tanks than they would be in the open ocean.

But a lot of people agreed with me that the dolphin tank in Baltimore represented a step backward for a high-profile institution that had a great opportunity to educate the public about the challenges facing the blue planet in the decades ahead.

Of course, the show went on. The aquarium had dolphins doing tricks until a couple of years ago.

Now we have the sudden, shocking news that the National Aquarium is considering no longer having dolphins on display, part of a general reassessment of the institution's mission as a conservation organization. It's a smart move, and essential for the aquarium's survival for the reasons I stated 24 years ago: Attitudes are changing, and with them, the market.

Call them whatever you like: Millennials, the Earth Day generation, Generation Green, the new wave cannot be denied. This generation — men and women under, say 40 — grew up on messages about threats to the environment and, while their parents and grandparents might have taken them to see dolphin shows, they recognize as adults the anachronistic nature of mammals in captivity for entertainment.

To climate scientists and demographers faced with big questions about the future of the Earth, this probably seems like a minor debate. In light of the depletion of the ozone layer, rising oceans, extreme weather and population growth, the plight of a few dolphins at the Baltimore aquarium is small-fry stuff. In terms of the global environment, we have much bigger problems.

But there's powerful symbolism here. As we treat dolphins, we treat the planet. If we see the dolphin as something to be kept captive and consumed — and buying tickets to a dolphin circus or exhibit is a form of consumption — we spread the idea of humans as dominant exploiters. If we harvest fish from the rivers, bays and oceans without protecting the rivers, bays and oceans, we deprive a future generation.

My point is, that future generation is here, and they are demanding new approaches to how we live on this planet. If you're a parent or grandparent, that's what you should be thinking about — how we leave this place for the kids — and that issue has never been more profound.

The question for the aquarium is how it re-invents itself. It has a big challenge: How to be important, relevant and entertaining at the same time. Being "more good for you than good" won't get customers through the turnstiles. People aren't going to go to the aquarium to be depressed about the state of the rivers, bays and oceans; they want answers. They'll support an institution that is doing things.

Ideas are needed.

I'll throw out two:

1. Become, even more than in the past, a place that saves — including some of the smallest creatures that live in the world's waters. Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the recent New York Times bestseller "The Sixth Extinction," reports that amphibians — frogs, toads, salamanders — are probably the world's most threatened class of animals. Come see our efforts to save some of them at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

2. Make the aquarium, even more than in the past, relevant to the Chesapeake Bay by expanding on its regional projects and becoming a central coordinator of all the nonprofit and volunteer efforts to save the nation's largest estuary. There are two ways for the aquarium to cater to that emerging market of eco-hip customers — give them something to enjoy and learn when they buy a ticket, then give them something to do.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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