Hyperbole and Vitriol Amid the Morro Bay Aquarium Debate

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Chances are, that if you have weighed in at all on the fate of the Morro Bay Aquarium, you have fallen into one of two camps—and you’ve been wrong.

That’s not to say that everyone has always been wrong, or that when you have been wrong that you were completely wrong, but your argument—on the whole—sucks.

Here’s why:

Regarding this debate—which centers on the decision of whether to extend the lease between the City of Morro Bay and the owners of the controversial, privately owned Morro Bay Aquarium—there are generally two types of people. In the one corner, we have the Morro Bay old timer: the decades-long resident who adores the owners, Dean and Bertha Tyler, and loathes liberal-hippy-animal-rights nutjobs who come stomping into town blabbing about something of which they have no right to complain.

This guy, let’s call him Joe—and make him male for the sake of simplicity—loves the aquarium. Joe spent his childhood happily feeding the seals. He has fond memories of his place; it’s found a special little place in the nostalgia center of his brain. Sure, the Morro Bay Aquarium isn’t as snazzy as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but god dammit, why should it be? And how dare anyone besmirch the impeccably adorable Tyler couple, who between the two of them have nearly 200 years on this planet, and have collectively rescued dozens of marine animals for no other reason than pure, unadulterated goodness. Joe sees that the aquarium has managed to keep its doors open and its ticket prices dirt cheap. Now he takes his kids there, and they love it too. It’s not the fanciest of digs, but the animals look happy. Besides, who’s to say whether the seals or the various fish or the octopus give a rat’s ass about the types of rocks in their tank, or whether their resting platforms appear a tad grimy?

In the opposite corner we have the outspoken aquarium protester. Again, for simplicity, let’s call this guy Jack. And Jack is pissed. He’s pissed because this so-called “aquarium” has been allowed to pen beautiful, sentient animals in tight, unsanitary quarters; to be fed garbage; and to be metaphorically milked to satisfy their two greedy owners. For that matter, Jack can’t wrap his head around the fact that such a facility can continue to operate after having been cited repeatedly for violating federal laws. If push comes to shove, Jack would happily have the aquarium shut down, boarded up, and bulldozed.

As I see it, both Joe and Jack are drama-queen-hyperbolic assholes who bend facts and ignore data as they see fit. These are people who rely on straw men and ad ignorantiam logic without taking enough pause to focus on the real heart of the issue. They argue from the heart, and they do so poorly. And it’s a damn shame, because there are plenty of fact-based arguments to be made, even over such an emotional issue.

Because it doesn’t matter that the Tylers are nice people, nor does it matter that kids like feeding seals from behind wire fencing. And it’s completely fallacious to say that the Tylers—indeed, anyone who manages the aquarium—reap a fat profit from the facility (last year, for example, the place netted about $190,000 in revenue and their top paid employee took home a $17,000 salary). In fact, the Tylers are by all accounts stellar citizens who, in many ways, pioneered early animal rescue efforts.

Yet while the aquarium has not, in fact, broken any federal laws, its compliance with the tenuous restrictions imposed by the USDA would hardly merit a gold medal for animal treatment. Remember that the facility was dinged for failing to keep enough water in the tanks, defined as a paltry three feet under the Animal Welfare Act, which is a lot like housing a German Shepard in a Ford Pinto.

What Jack and Joe forget, is that no one can say for certain whether the seals are happy or miserable; no one can categorically ignore the aquarium’s dicey record with the USDA, nor vilify the aquarium when they’ve technically broken no laws; and then there’s the fact that kids typically don’t know shit when it comes to animal rights.

This is not to say that everyone who has a dog in this fight is a Jack or a Joe. There are those who make well reasoned pleas and arguments. But for each calm, rational supporter or protester, there’s a line of people who’ve done no research and relied upon nothing more than a gut feeling.

That being said, here are the facts that should be fully addressed before any decision is made regarding the aquarium’s future.

  • The Morro Bay Aquarium comes with a death toll of 24 deceased seals and sea lions, and an appallingly low life expectancy that falls well short of the average for captive pinnipeds.
  • There is a complete lack of proper veterinary care, with an attending veterinarian who, at last check, is a local dog and cat guy who admitted that he is incapable of handling large marine mammals.
  • Many visitors perceive the aquarium as cruel and outdated, which—though some refuse to admit so—has a very real impact on Morro Bay’s image among prospective tourists.
  • Despite claims that the aquarium rehabilitates animals, only one sea lion was technically picked up as a rescue, and none of the four pinnipeds will likely ever be released back into the wild.

Barring any cogent argument against these points, it seems far fetched that the city would allow the aquarium to exist in its current state. Does that mean it should be outright shut down? Probably not. Nor does it mean that a paint job and dose of fresh PR will do the trick.

Or, just let me know why I’m wrong.