Feature photo by the Vancouver Aquarium.
Recently, the Vancouver Parks Board unanimously voted to “prohibit the importation and display” of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium. This came on the heels of the tragic deaths of two of the Aquarium’s beloved belugas, Aurora (age 30) and her calf Qila (age 21). The ban, while applauded by many animal rights’ activists, is misguided and will ultimately be a detriment to cetacean welfare.
Much of the popular support for this ban comes from a misunderstanding of the Vancouver Aquarium’s mission. The Vancouver Aquarium isn’t SeaWorld: it’s a non-profit organization with a focus on research, education, and conservation. It undertakes significant research efforts, rigorously operates a Marine Mammal Rescue Center, and emphasizes the importance of conservation to the public. The Aquarium’s exhibits, summer camps, and shows highlight not just the beauty and majesty of its animals, but also their vulnerability to destructive human activities. Growing up in Vancouver, I spent plenty of time at the Aquarium, so ethereal jellyfish, iridescent tropical fishes, and adorable otters are etched forever in my mind. So, however, are memories of releasing salmon fry to repopulate local creeks and being warned of the threat climate change poses to coral reefs. When I got an iPhone, the Aquarium reminded me to download the Oceanwise Food Guide which I began consulting regularly, much to my parents’ chagrin.
Source: Vancouver Aquarium
(While many of the Vancouver Aquarium’s ads are strictly promotional, they also purchase space to spread awareness of environmental issues.)
The Vancouver Aquarium promised to stop capturing cetaceans in 1996 ‒ being the first aquarium to do so ‒ and has kept that promise ever since. All of the cetaceans currently being displayed by the Aquarium are rescues: a ban on their display would do nothing but silence the animals’ tragic stories. After all, there’s no substitute for firsthand experience. Anecdotes, interactions, and images carry more emotional weight than statistics alone will ever be able to. Nobody should know this better than the ban’s supporters, who often cite animals’ perceived claustrophobia and tragic incidents like Aurora and Qila’s deaths as evidence that captivity is fundamentally in opposition to animal welfare.
Even so, they ignore the fact that the display of rescued cetaceans makes their stories poignant in a way that would otherwise be impossible. Hearing that reckless fishing threatens dolphin populations is sad, but seeing a dolphin with an injured flipper is heartbreaking. Remembering the gentle face of a beluga smiling at you when thinking about threats to cetaceans makes you doubly motivated to protect them. Exhibiting these animals – which are unfit for release into the wild ‒ to the public and telling their stories is an extremely important way to ground their endangerment in reality and motivate the public to change their behaviour. This ban has removed from the Aquarium’s arsenal one of its most important tools for protecting cetaceans.
The ban poses more concrete threats to cetaceans as well, on both immediate and global scales. In 2014, an independent third-party study was conducted by Dr. Joseph Gaydos, a respected UC Davis veterinarian and scientist. He noted that the Vancouver Aquarium, unlike most comparable institutions, willingly provided all information he requested. Dr. Gaydos further found that the Vancouver Aquarium met all industry standards for cetacean care and that the Aquarium’s research contributes substantially to the “understanding and conservation of cetaceans in the wild”. Troublingly, however, he noted that the “quality of [the Aquarium’s research and stranding and response] programs could be compromised” in the event of a ban on captive cetaceans, also warning that the Aquarium would “no longer have an option for the long-term care of animals that could not be released back into the wild.” In other words, cetaceans that cannot be released will likely have to be euthanized.
There is a painful irony in the cetacean ban: by short-sightedly jeopardizing important initiatives meant to protect cetaceans because of their own squeamishness, activists have made these animals suffer to satisfy frivolous human interests. It might be unfair to say that what they’ve done is no better than what SeaWorld does, but they’ve done nothing to eliminate cetacean suffering. Even ignoring the direct harms this ban has caused, all they’ve accomplished is denying others the ability to viscerally appreciate the animal lives at stake.