"I've never seen so many excited gays before," observed a sweaty reveler on the pulsing dance floor at the Atlanta Pride party at the Georgia Aquarium. His tattooed friend looked around and deadpanned, "Or so many terrified fish."
I had never been inside an aquarium before--just outside as a demonstrator. I only learned of this gala when I arrived from Virginia to work PETA's booth at the gay pride festival in Piedmont Park. I found it ironic that my seemingly sophisticated subculture would celebrate freedom in a building that celebrates captivity. My first thought was to stand at the entrance with a protest sign, but a friend on the guest list suggested that I accompany him and have a civil word with the organizers in hopes of opening their hearts and minds to choosing a less oppressive venue next year.
As a veteran clubber, I'm used to big loud parties, but the music at the aquarium was so earsplitting that even before we entered, I could only wonder how it sounded to the most notable of the facility's 120,000 inmates--the beluga whales. These marine mammals are so sensitive to pounding noises that the aquarium shipped them away during construction of the dolphin exhibit. Yet the thumping techno remix of Katy Perry's "Firework" was as audible outside as a jackhammer.
After handing over our comp passes, I left my friend and went directly to the Oceans Ballroom, which holds 1,600 people and is bordered by tank windows. I was awestruck to see the majestic white belugas swim by, but the sensation was more heartbreaking than breathtaking. Like gays, belugas are very social beings who in nature hang out in large, often exclusively same-sex groups called "pods." They are Arctic animals who travel thousands of miles each year in the wild, guided by an intricate sonar system centered in what looks like a bump on their forehead. They make high-pitched squeaks and whistles that bounce off the ocean floor, the polar ice caps and the coast to help them migrate, forage, breed and socialize.
This sonar system, which combines all their key senses, is thwarted in the relatively tiny aquarium tanks, and the trend in recent years of loud parties designed not for education but for extra profit has further devastated the lives and psyches of these uniquely gifted animals. The UN may have banned the torture of prisoners with music, but it is routinely practiced at the Georgia Aquarium.
There were tour guides stationed at the massive tank windows to field questions. I was curious about a particular beluga squirming and twisting around more than the others. He was angrily snapping at a seal. His body language revealed a torment that broke through his fixed grin, the trait that has doomed belugas to captivity because gawkers, especially kids, just think of them as happy-go-lucky cartoon characters. The music was so loud that the guide and I had to holler at each other.
"What a beauty--who's that?!" I gushed with a smile as insincere as the whale's.
"You're looking at Beethoven--he's 16 years old, and he's from Texas!" she yelled back cheerfully.
"If only he were deaf like the human Beethoven!" I replied. She laughed sympathetically.
"Does the music bother them?" I asked.
"Well, yes," she confided sheepishly. "Especially the males―as soon as the music starts pounding, they go nuts and start attacking the harbor seals in the tanks. We had Jazz Fridays this summer, and I can't say many of the animals in any of the exhibits were fans. When the music starts, they get to fighting."
I Googled Beethoven just as you might Google anyone who makes a big impression on you at a party. He's one of the few belugas born in captivity--at Sea World in San Antonio, a long way from his species' icy habitat. Whenever male whales survive in captivity, the marine parks look upon them as sperm banks with fins and trade them like baseball players in hopes of making more whales to sell or use to lure even greater crowds. Because Beethoven was a young buck, he had been shipped several times between Texas, Washington, and Georgia, and the strain was showing. I've rarely seen such a miserable being of any species, and I'll never forget him.
The DJ then blasted Gaga's gay anthem "Born This Way," and everyone sang along. "I'm beautiful in my way 'cause God makes no mistakes. ... Baby, I was born this way!" I wished my fellow gays would look away from the dance floor for a moment and apply the defiant lyrics to the other beleaguered individuals swimming desperately all around them.
Dan Mathews is a senior vice president of PETA and author of Committed: A Rabble Rouser's Memoir (Simon & Schuster).