Fears for blue tang fish spike in the wake of Finding Dory

Blue tangfastic. ©2016 Disney Pixar

Cinema’s around the world are now showing Finding Dory, the long awaited sequel to Disney and Pixar’s 2003 Finding Nemo. The film takes up the story of Dory, a much loved character from the first film, who embarks on a quest to be reunited with her family. We follow the animated blue tang as she leaps and flip flops from one watery environment to the next, apparently happy to be transported in a beaker of drinking water, a mop bucket or through connecting pipes in a public aquarium.

Along the way, Dory – who suffers from short term memory loss – manages to regain some of the lost memories of her past life with assistance from Nemo, his father Marlin and an octopus named Hank.

In the run-up to the film’s opening in America, Finding Dory attracted media attention when questions were raised by conservationists, marine biologists and animal advocates about the potential for the film to trigger a craze for blue tang fish. The majority of marine aquarium species are still taken from the wild and, in the case of blue tang, the process of capture is harmful to both the fish and to coral reefs.

Finding Nemo led to a rapid growth in the trade of clownfish as pets which, in turn, contributed to the decline of wild populations. Reports suggested that the pet industry was expecting a similar growth in sales of blue tang and pet products following the release of Finding Dory.

Nemo making a reappearance. ©2016 Disney•Pixar

Green entertainment

One response to concerns about the impacts of wild capture has been to initiate research into captive breeding programmes. For example, until very recently it was not thought possible to breed blue tang in captivity. But in late July 2016, an announcement from Rising Tide Conservation and University of Florida revealed that for the first time, blue tang had been successfully reared in captivity for 52 days. The press release noted that the six-year project to find an alternative to taking fish from the wild had backing from the SeaWorld-Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.

Many will recall that SeaWorld’s profits and public image were irreparably damaged by the 2013 documentary film Blackfish; a story about an orca named Tilikum. SeaWorld’s investment in the Rising Tide initiative and involvement in the captive breeding of blue tang may be playing a role in the company’s efforts to rebrand itself as a conservation organisation rather than an entertainment corporation and theme park.

In this respect it is some years behind Disney, the company responsible for Finding Dory, under its subsidiary brand Pixar. Disney’s moves to reorient the brand’s green credentials involved the creation of DisneyNature in 2008, a semi-autonomous film unit dedicated to producing nature documentaries, which are usually slated for release on Earth Day, and a revised corporate sustainability strategy.

Disney’s efforts have been branded by some in the press as greenwashing. My own analysis of the release strategy of DisneyNature films is in accordance with this: the tensions between the company’s commitment to what it calls “environmentality”, its green rebranding and its drive for profits are untenable.

For example, under pressure to address concerns about the impact of Finding Dory on blue tang, Disney Pixar released a downloadable guide to pet fish ownership. The guide is, however, difficult to find and the message that blue tang are not suited to life as a pet is completely overshadowed by the Disney marketing for the film and associated merchandise.

‘Baby Dory’

Indeed, the messages reaching the public about blue tang are worrying. Media coverage of the breakthrough in raising this fish in captivity, even referring to them as “baby Dory”, celebrates the technological solution that will allow consumers to purchase a sustainable Dory. Consumer fears that they are contributing to destruction of blue tang populations and coral reef areas are appeased by the message that it’s business as usual in the pet trade when entertainment, science and commerce work together.

The fact that many blue tang had to die in the process of developing a captive bred fish, that blue tang are still unsuitable as pets, that once in captivity and even under good conditions their lifespans are shortened, and that far from being the cute memory-challenged character we see onscreen, blue tang have spines on their tails designed to inflict injuries on would-be attackers – all this is lost in the celebratory communication that sustainable Dorys are on their way.

While we have yet to see if Finding Dory will have an impact on the trade in blue tang, the question over what degree of responsibility media companies should take for their representations of animals and their involvement in the promotion of animals as entertainment and pets remains. It has been surprisingly easy for media companies to continue to hide behind a thin veneer of greenwashing.

The Conversation

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Zootopia-inspired pet trade shows problem of portraying wild animals as cuddly companions

At home in the Sahara. Cat Downie / shutterstock

Films and TV shows keep depicting wild animals as fun and friendly characters, with human-like personalities. It’s better than representing them as evil monsters, of course, but sometimes films can have a bad influence on which animals become trendy to have as pets.

The most recent example concerns the Disney animation Zootropolis (also titled Zootopia or even Zoomania depending on where you live) and the fennec fox, a small, cat-sized fox with large ears that it uses to keep cool in its native Sahara.

In the film a fennec fox, named Finnick, appears in only a handful of scenes as a sidekick to one of the central characters, a red fox named Nick Wilde. Yet the character clearly made the most of his limited screen time. Following the movie’s release in China, there have been reports of huge demand for fennec foxes as pets despite their unsuitability for life as companion animals.

Though the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species currently lists the fennec fox as one of “least concern”, this could be a game-changer. The main threat to populations in North Africa is from trapping for sale to tourists and for exhibition purposes, and there is now speculation that the Chinese pet craze could have an impact on their numbers in the wild.

There is good reason for this assumption, as this isn’t the first time pet-keeping trends have been influenced by blockbuster films or popular TV shows that have featured anthropomorphised animals or exotic species.

Large, unusual or hard-to-keep dog breeds have been given an onscreen makeover in movies such as Beethoven (Saint Bernards), Turner and Hooch (Dogue de Bordeaux) or the Harry Potter franchise (Neapolitan Mastiff). 101 Dalmatians portrayed the breed as cute, fun-loving family dogs but experts point out that the breed is in fact strong-minded, requires high levels of exercise and can be destructive. In 1997, a year after the film was released, rescue organisations in the US reported that the number of Dalmatians surrendered to shelters had more than doubled.

It’s been a similar story recently for Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies and other wolf-like breeds after the inclusion of wolves and Northern Inuit Dogs in Game of Thrones and the Twilight movies. By 2014 the number of wolf-like dogs taken in by the UK Dogs Trust charity had tripled over four years. Owners found themselves unprepared for the realities of living with large, powerful breeds and their requirements for exercise, socialisation and mental stimulation.

It’s not just dogs: sales of turtles and tortoises increased rapidly following the various Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. The charity American Tortoise Rescue estimated that the majority were eventually killed, flushed down toilets, or dumped.

Pet shops were inundated with requests for clown-fish after the release of Finding Nemo in 2003, despite the specialist needs and costs associated with caring for tropical reef fish. Harry Potter’s pet Hedwig also led to a substantial increase in the number of pet owls given up to sanctuaries.

Chimpanzees have also suffered for decades due to their misrepresentation in popular media. The species is currently listed as endangered, and the illegal pet trade continues to be one of its major threats. The standard practice for acquiring chimpanzees from the wild is to kill the female chimp and take her baby.

Despite numerous film and television representations of chimps as cute, human-like clowns, they are wholly unsuitable as companion animals. Natural behaviour developed by around age five puts humans at risk of severe injury from aggression and biting. Many chimpanzees are given up to research laboratories; a lucky few find a place in specialist sanctuaries.

Ronald Reagan once played a psychology professor who tried to teach human morals to a chimp.

The consequences of trends driven by film and television for many animals are both sad and alarming. The industries should certainly take some level of responsibility for their representations of animals and some have already done this, providing information about the species featured as fictional characters onscreen.

However responsibility lies elsewhere too and there needs to be a wider conversation about the relationship humans have with animals in general. This discussion could begin with the acknowledgement that other animals are individual sentient beings with their own species-specific interests and needs. A radical change in human attitudes towards other species is long overdue.The Conversation

Claire Molloy, Professor of Film, Television and Digital Media, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.