Not for the first time, young people in Hong Kong have shown more caring for the environment and more compassion for others, including other species, than we adults tend to display. I am referring to the recent threat by students of Kennedy School in Pok Fu Lam to boycott Ocean Park if it adds more wild dolphins to its collection.
In recent weeks Ocean Park has been criticised for its plans to study dolphins in the Solomon Islands and possibly to capture some of them if the population is found to be sustainable. Much of the controversy surrounded the company's plan to use its 'conservation' foundation to conduct this study. Indeed, the controversy proved so intense that Ocean Park has since said that an outside group would conduct the study instead.
Yet, it has not mentioned the physical and mental pain felt by dolphins taken from the wild and placed in permanent captivity. It does not address the question of whether the entertainment and supposed education that people might enjoy at the park is worth the suffering and lifelong imprisonment of these wild animals.
It defies comprehension to deny that these animals, among the most intelligent non-primate species, suffer greatly when taken from their family groups and natural habitats to be 'imprisoned' by Ocean Park. I use the term decidedly, because dolphins do not choose to live there.
As an educator, I am offended by Ocean Park's use of education as justification for capturing dolphins. Having dolphins play games with their handlers in a pool is neither 'education' nor - to quote a company official - 'connecting Ocean Park's guests with nature'. It is instead entertainment that inures people, including impressionable children, to the cruelty that pervades the imprisonment of intelligent wild animals. Perhaps children are the last people who should be witnessing the dolphin shows.
Ocean Park's justifications for keeping dolphins remind one of the slave trade. The self-righteous argument by the company's management - that making dolphins its captives is somehow a worthy endeavour, and that the animals are treated with great care - is analogous to slave traders' justifications of their crimes by pointing to the economic value of slavery and by arguing that their slaves were well looked after. Such thinking has, thankfully, been consigned to history.
If Ocean Park truly cares about educating children about nature, it could join activists in visibly pushing for stronger legal protection for animals and their habitats. It could use its profits to send young people to visit dolphins in the wild. The stories they would tell their classmates would be vastly more effective in raising awareness about animals and nature than watching imprisoned dolphins perform tricks.
If Ocean Park's concern is with the genetic diversity of captive dolphins, the solution is to halt captive breeding altogether. Recently captured dolphins may be suitable for return to their homes.
Most people would not question whether Ocean Park does most of what it can to care for the animals it exhibits. But many people, including the students at Kennedy School, do question whether it is right to assume that such care is better for dolphins than leaving them in the wild. The school's students demonstrate a greater awareness of what is best for wild dolphins than do the officials at Ocean Park.
Let's be clear: Ocean Park is a business. If capturing dolphins becomes bad for business, the practice will end. Good people should encourage this outcome by staying away from parks and zoos that imprison dolphins and whales. We should follow the lead of the thoughtful students at Kennedy School.
Paul G. Harris is chair professor of global and environmental studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education