Disturbing ignorance


SINCE August 1980, I have been an aquarist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. I have spent 14 years working with all kinds of animals, including marine mammals, at this and other institutions. Dan Rodricks' Dec. 27 column, "The drowning of eco-morality," is not based on any research on animals in captivity, animals in general or the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

This is my understanding of what Rodricks was saying:

* The aquarium is in the business of making money.

Would he rather it lost money? The Evening Sun renders a service to this community for which it is reimbursed. Presumably, Rodricks does not write for free.

* The aquarium does not contribute to public education about the environment.

Our exit surveys indicate that people leaving the marine mammal presentations have a much increased awareness of drift-net fishing, pollution and other conservation concerns. Rodricks seems to feel that it would be a good thing to close us down. Organizations such as the Lady Maryland Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Save Our Streams are all in the forefront of the effort to educate the public about our Chesapeake Bay watershed. Not only do we do some programs in concert with them, but you will probably find that there are many aquarium members or supporters among their ranks (and vice versa).

We serve as a kind of giant advertisement for our common cause. If just a small percentage of the many children who come through the aquarium develop a better appreciation of the environment, it is worth it. Eugenie Clark, a famous and important marine scientist, was inspired to become what she is today by her trips to the New York Aquarium when she was a child.

* TV documentaries are a suitable substitute for us.

Sadly, first-hand experience with nature is increasingly beyond more and more people. While we cannot duplicate nature exactly, we come close. I did not go on a whale watch until 1987 because such trips were too expensive. In days past, America was a more rural society, and children learned many valuable lessons by being made responsible for animals. They learned that animal welfare is closely tied to what humans do. They learned that animals die when you make mistakes, and they also die when you don't. They learned about the finality of death.

My friends at the aquarium who worked with Anore [the beluga whale] felt real pain when she died. By what right does Rodricks imply that they are here only for the money? (One look at our salary structure would convince him this is not the case.) Rodricks has spent his time with animal rights activists, not these animals and their trainers, so he knows nothing about them and how much of their souls go into their jobs. Regarding animal rights activists as the authorities on the aquarium is like regarding David Duke as an authority on African-Americans.

* Pier 4 was built only to increase attendance.

When the belugas were housed in Pier 3, surveys indicated that they were about as popular as the sharks. My understanding of the expansion rationale was that the building was already

overcrowded, and Pier 4 was seen as a way to ease the crowds, round out the marine spectrum and give the public what it wanted to see -- dolphins. By the way, the belugas do not play water polo, and the average visitor returns about once every 22 months.

Rodricks' column displayed a disturbing degree of ignorance and a distaste for fact-checking. If he is truly concerned with the environment and animals in captivity, he owes it to himself and his readers to do a little work and research the issues. I'm available any time he wants to talk.

Juan Sabalones is senior aquarist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

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