Hong Kong activists have called on Ocean Park to phase out animal shows and artificial breeding as part of a global effort to end cetacean captivity.
“Ocean Park has for years ignored criticism from civil society while continuing to keep animals in captivity and force them to perform,” animal rights group Dolphin Family said in a statement on Saturday.
The group organised a protest outside Ocean Park on Saturday as part of the sixth annual Empty The Tanks Worldwide initiative to raise awareness on the problems with cetacean captivity. Protests were planned across 21 countries on the same day.
The 6th Annual Empty the Tanks Worldwide event is starting soon! There are over 70 locations spanning across 21 countries participating in this historic event. The captivity industry will hear us and know that we aren't stopping until we #EmptyTheTanks#blackfish #dontbuyaticket pic.twitter.com/Wuf7cqkaL5
— Empty The Tanks (@Empty_the_Tanks) May 11, 2018
Though Ocean Park said keeping dolphins on its premises will “inspire and educate the public” on the importance of wildlife conservation, animal rights activists argued that there is no educational benefit from seeing animals in a captive setting.
The Empty The Tanks organisers said marine mammals in tanks “are not eating, socializing, reproducing, exercising, or behaving naturally. Everything you see at a marine park or aquarium is a forced behavior.”
Lawmaker Claudia Mo, who attended Saturday’s protest, told HKFP: “We need to wake up to the fact that animal shows should have no place in the world because the animals used are marine mammals and they are highly intelligent creatures, and they are [being] exploited to entertain humans.”
“That’s animal slavery, and it’s so wrong.”
Around 30 activists chanted slogans outside Ocean Park such as “dolphins belong to the ocean, not a park” and “release the dolphins” under a heavy presence of security guards, who watched the protesters closely and intervened throughout the two-hour-long protest.
The activists were also warned by the MTR Corporation that they were not permitted to linger on the bridge connecting Ocean Park Station and the park when they tried to hand out leaflets to visitors. Several plainclothes and a uniformed police officer were also at the scene.
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) May 12, 2018
A small scuffle broke out as several activists tried to display a banner inside the area between the park’s security checkpoints and ticket booths.
One of the activists, Yuki, told HKFP that security guards intervened as soon as they took out the banner, and tried to take it away from the activists.
“We wanted to give visitors a proper understanding [of cetacean captivity] without getting in their way,” she said. “But we didn’t expect the guards to be so rough with us.”
This is not the first time Ocean Park has responded to animal rights demands by having security guards closely watch the activists. In 2016, several university students were tailed by the park’s security guards for six hours after they were spotted handing out leaflets on dolphin conservation in Admiralty.
Dora Wong of Civic Party Animal Rights Concern Group criticised Ocean Park for not respecting the activists’ right to freely express messages of public importance.
“We tried to use peaceful means to tell visitors that Ocean Park’s publicity materials are misleading – that [animal captivity] is actually a cruel practice and deprives animals of their freedom,” she told HKFP.
The protesters demanded Ocean Park gradually phase out all forms of animal performances, breeding and acquisition of animals from other places. They also asked the park to set up a public notification system regarding any injuries and deaths of its animals.
According to its 2017 annual report, the 41-year-old park had 7,807 animals last year. It saw 884 deaths of animals that year, up by 84 deaths from 2016.
The activists also criticised the government’s recent decision to allocate HK$310 million to support Ocean Park.
Dolphin Family said: “At least 18 countries have passed laws with a view to gradually phasing out sea animal captivity and breeding, while many aquariums have voluntarily ended animal shows.”
“We condemn the government for going against the global trend by using public money to sponsor an entertainment park that perpetuates injustices.”
A public relations officer of Ocean Park told HKFP that they were not informed of Saturday’s demonstration in advance.
Ocean Park said in a statement that some of the Empty The Tanks’ appeals and arguments were “misinformed.” For example, it said releasing the dolphins is “unrealistic,” as the majority of the park’s dolphins were born inside zoological facilities and are deemed non-releasable.
It said artificial breeding helps prevent extinctions, while the park has contributed to global conservation efforts such as by financially supporting conservation projects and providing rehabilitation facilities for injured or orphaned cetaceans.
It added that past surveys by the park found that visitors displayed “heightened willingness” to take action on conservation after spending time in the park and watching Ocean Theatre shows, during which dolphins, sea lions and other animals “demonstrate natural behaviour.”
But Roni Wong, organiser of Saturday’s protest, said there was nothing “natural” about their behaviour and that the animals were performing tricks taught by the park’s trainers.
Ocean Park is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, two leading global accreditation in the field.