Roughly 20 PETA members and volunteers this afternoon handed out brochures and collected signatures while protesting Atlanta Pride's kick-off party that will be held tonight at the Georgia Aquarium.
The sold-out event, which bills itself as the "South's largest cocktail party," will feature DJs and is expected to have 4,000 people in attendance.
In a press release, PETA said it was "speaking up for the animals held captive at the Georgia Aquarium." The group says the aquarium's aquatic residents have no choice but to attend and are being "imprisoned for entertainment" and that "sophisticated marine mammals" are disturbed by sonar bouncing off the tank walls.
PETA volunteer Linda Clay drove from Austell for the protest and said that, since "dolphins and whales communicate by sonar," the noise from party will be extremely painful for the animals. They are "already in so much pain because they are in captivity," she said while holding a sign that read "This is no party for animals."
"This is the third year we have been out here protesting the Pride event and we have gotten no response from the committee," said PETA Senior Vice President Dan Mathews. "It is just a money-making ploy for the aquarium to have these parties, it's not about education."
Mathews, who is openly gay, recently claimed that an aquarium guide told him two years ago during a Pride party at the Downtown attraction that loud music during events disturbs the animals.
Scott Higley, the Georgia Aquarium's Vice President of Marketing & Communications, blasted the animal rights group's claim in an email to CL. He scoffed at "PETA's droning, non-factual claims, which it continues to propagate in certain Atlanta media."
"The truth is that the beluga whales at Georgia Aquarium are well-loved and well-cared-for," he wrote. "They are fed restaurant-quality food, receive the finest available veterinary care, enjoy social enrichment programs, and enjoy the love and care of a team of experts, who have dedicated their lives to these majestic animals."
When asked if the aquarium had ever studied the effect of events' noises and activity on the whales and fish in the aquarium, he told CL that "a study of this and other natures has been conducted as one of our many methods of aggressively conserving and protecting all of the species in our care. We have determined a maximum volume level based on the scientific community's knowledge of marine mammal hearing and continuously monitor volume using sophisticated new technologies."
Leslie Cornick, a marine mammal biologist who has worked on projects that received aquarium funding - and who recently criticized its attempt to import more of the mammals - told CL in an email that "the notion that a party at the aquarium would somehow cause pain to the belugas there is nonsense."
"The ocean is one of the noisiest environments on the planet and most beluga whale communications and their hearing range are in much higher frequency ranges than those that humans operate in," Cornick says. "That isn't to say that excessive noise in the marine environment isn't potentially damaging to marine mammals - it definitely is. But this is not the same thing."
Jonathan Stern, an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University who says he's studied whales for the last 35 years, could not comment without knowing exactly what studies were conducted by the aquarium or how they were measured. But he wondered whether the activity and music, even at low frequencies, could disturb them at a time when they're normally not being observed by visitors.
"I sort of wonder about the sound that they're sensing when normally they'd be resting or doing things when the public is not there," Stern said. "My real concern is you're intruding on a time when these animals are used to not being stared at by people... Maybe socializing with each other when no one's watching is important. Or maybe they sleep."
The protesters will return to the aquarium at 8 p.m. to protest outside the entrance to the Pride party.
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