The story of a tiny little fish… and the meaning of captivity

I thought about writing this before, dropped the idea again, but after what I heard yesterday about the penguin prison, I just had to write it. I couldn’t sleep last night out of anger and frustrations…

It is a story based on two little events that happened about a month ago. The first one was in the north of Peru. During a field trip we hired a fisherman to take us with his boat out to open waters to collect recordings of dolphins and whales. At some point I jumped in the water, something I love to do. I don’t have much experiences on boats, especially not at open sea, so I think this was the first time in my life that I jumped in the water so far away from land. It was AMAZING! The space, the freedom, the absence of boundaries, just the endless ocean with in one direction far away a stripe of land that looked limited and unattractive.

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There I was, drifting weightless, embraced by this immense body of water, just happy and enjoying. I finally really understood all the animals we had at the base, their desire to escape all the time, often more for the sake of escaping, rather than the desire to go to a different place.

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They don’t understand the concept of solid boundaries and being locked up in a limited space. In their world these things simply don’t exist. A lot of land animals are, I think, a bit more used to these kind of things because the landscape itself has a lot of boundaries: a mountain, a cliff, a river, etc. We always have to find our way around it, or at least think about these obstacles. But what else than its own physical limitations or maybe a predator stops a sea lion from swimming wherever it wants to go? The ocean is SO BIG! Suddenly having a wall in front of their nose is something marine animals simply can’t accept. Take Chino for example, he sacrificed his own wings just because he couldn’t accept the boundaries. He just had to be free! That desire was bigger than anything else…

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A couple of days later I saw the dolphins Yaku and Wayra in their tiny little dirty pool, stuck in there for years, always aware of the ocean so nearby, always hearing ‘home’ calling. After seeing the big pod of dolphins in the north happily jumping around talking to their friends and family, this was just way TOO sad, TOO horrible, TOO cruel and impossible to understand. The real meaning of captivity never explained itself better. It is nothing but a torture…

Another event that happened around that time made 2 other concepts very clear: the meaning of ‘wild animal’ and the power of ‘natural triggers’.

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Carlos and I went fishing to get alive fishes for Ron and Chino to test their fishing skills. One of the fishes was so tiny that neither Ron nor Chino discovered it in the pool even though it had been in there several times. Amazingly the little fishy survived 3 times being in the fresh water pool and on top of that being in Chino’s lunch plate. It survived 2 days and 2 nights swimming around in a little bucket. A miracle! When it was still alive the 3rd morning we decided that it definitely deserved to be released. That’s what we did. Maybe the little fishy was eaten straight away, but at least it had had this brief moment of happiness being home, instead of slowly dying in a strange and lonely place… Because even this tiny little silly fishy displayed emotions like fear, sadness and stress. Even this fishy felt totally out of place and severely uncomfortable with the situation, though it had (compared to its size) enough space to swim and salty water with enough oxygen to survive. What does this imply for more intelligent creatures? How can you possibly keep a dolphin, sea lion or penguin in a little pool? Sure, at first all these animals, like the little fishy will survive if the very basic needs (like enough food) are met. Like people if they go to prison, they won’t die straight away. It seems that when freedom is taking away, animals (and people) enter some kind of survival mode, maybe coming from some kind of instinctive drive to stay alive. How well an animal survives basically depends on the capability to adapt. It survives, but at what costs? Soon, if not immediately, emotions like anxiety, fear, depression, stress and loneliness take over and if these continue, it can result in apathetic behavior, total madness, self-destructive behavior, self-harm, aggression and even suicide. That’s what you see in Chino breaking his wings, in Yaku bumping with his head against the wall all the time, or in orcas killing other orcas and people around them. Why? because they go mad, they don’t belong there, they can’t adapt to a place that is not even a glimpse of their natural habitat: they are WILD animals! You can’t keep them in any kind of facility without (eventually) harming them!

So what if an animal has been in captivity for a long period of its life, isn’t it ‘too domesticated’ to go back to nature? For me the answer is a definite NO: even after years in captivity a wild animal will always stay wild and will remember to be wild again if you provide the right natural triggers. Even if it grew up in captivity. Take Ron for example. He was so young when he arrived to the base that he had never seen a fish swimming in the ocean. Still he knew that the ocean was his home as soon as he saw it and he knew how to catch fish as soon as he spotted the living fishes swimming in the pool. IT IS AMAZING!

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Btw, do we people forget how to be a human after many years in prison? Not really. Look at Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest persons in history. He spend so many years in prison, did he fail after he was released? Absolutely not! So what makes us think that all these animals will fail? Who are we to decide for them that they can’t do it?

But what if an animal has some physical limitations? That’s not gonna stop them from being what they are. They will adapt to it, overcome it. Maya, almost totally blind, could catch fishes without a problem. Chino, with both wings half amputated, could still swim and catch fishes. Maybe they won’t become very old, but don’t they deserve a chance to try it? If you look at it like this: we don’t lock up blind people in their homes just because if they walk outside they might have a (deadly) accident. No, we give them the right tools and support them to live their life as normal as everyone else. So why don’t we do this for animals? Anyway,  I think, it’s better to have a short life that is full of what you love doing, than a long life that is full of pain and misery…

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A final word on captivity. What is the beauty of an animal in captivity anyway? If you see an animal locked up in a little cage or in a little area, you don’t really see the animal. All you see is just a glimpse of what it really is, a shadow of its beauty. Why would you like to see just that? From my experiences with working with wild animals there is just one moment that beats all the other moments by far: the release. I absolutely, undeniably felt in love with penguins like Ron and sea lions like Laurita and Javier. I appreciated and enjoyed all the moments I could spend with these amazing creatures. But NOTHING can beat the moment of triumph, the feeling of pure happiness to see them going home to their friends and families! THAT is when they show their real beauty.

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Please people in the north from the so-called penguin center. STOP IT! You have absolutely NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE DOING! You are murdering penguins…

Written by Anique

*Anique Hoekstra, MSc(Psyc) was Animal Welfare Supervisor & Researcher of the Animal Ethology and Cognition Research Program at the Science & Animal Welfare Department of the Organization for Research and Conservation of Aquatic Animals -ORCA- in Peru during 2012 and 2013. 

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