Opinion: Keeping Cetaceans In Captivity Isn’t A Black And White Issue

Working at the Vancouver Aquarium showed me the debate isn't about choosing between right and wrong. It's about deciding on the lesser of evils.

June 16, 2017

By Jessica Barrett

Last month’s decision by the Vancouver Park Board to ban rescued cetaceans from being kept in long-term captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium left the city deeply divided and the Aquarium vowing to fight back. Now they are. This week, the aquarium announced a legal challenge against the decision, but while the ink was still fresh on that press release, the organization made another announcement: one of its three remaining cetaceans had died.

Daisy, a harbour porpoise rescued as an infant in 2008 and raised at the aquarium after she was deemed non-releasable, passed away on June 15 after staff had noticed a change in her behaviour in the previous days. The death has once again ignited the debate, with animal rights activists viewing it as further proof cetaceans should not be kept in captivity under any circumstances, and the aquarium’s supporters celebrating the life of the porpoise, listed as a species of special concern, as an example of the aquarium’s successful conservation efforts. The average life expectancy of a harbour porpoise is thought to be between eight and 12 years old. Daisy was nine. With the controversy unlikely to die down any time soon, we’re reposting this piece by senior editor Jessica Barrett, who developed a unique view on cetaceans in captivity after working for a short time at the Vancouver Aquarium.

This piece was originally posted on March 24, 2017.


I went to work for the Vancouver Aquarium for a few reasons, the most pressing among them economic necessity.

I was a full-time freelancer in search of my next contract and a former co-worker (and yes, a friend) on the aquarium’s communications team approached me with a gig that seemed just about perfect. They needed someone part time for a few months to write and edit the aquarium’s blog and annual report, I needed a steady gig to support me through the ups and downs of life as a freelance journalist. But of course, there was some soul-searching involved; both my professional and moral integrity were at stake.

For one thing, working for the aquarium would effectively render me ineligible to report on news stories related to the facility or its future, for another, I’d have to decide if I was comfortable with working for a place that keeps highly intelligent, sentient beings in captivity.

I decided I was OK on the first point. I had no aspirations to become a science or environmental writer, and at the time, planned on freelancing for the foreseeable future. This would allow me to sidestep writing about the aquarium from a city-issues perspective by simply abstaining from pitching stories related to it, or declining any potential assignments on the topic that might have come my way.

The second point was more fraught. I have always had an affinity for whales and dolphins. Like many kids I developed a burning passion for cetaceans—although I didn’t know that word then—after studying them in school. For a time, I desperately wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up, which was in Edmonton where my entire exposure to these complex creatures came by way of the four bottlenose dolphins inexplicably on display at West Edmonton Mall. I wasn’t particularly into the dolphin show as a kid, but I loved that when the jumping and splashing was over, you could just walk right up to the tank and watch them swim. They were amazing creatures, graceful, yet terrifyingly powerful. I was captivated.

As I got older I realized how absurd it was to keep dolphins in cramped, chaotic quarters in middle of a shopping mall in landlocked Alberta. When they died, I was at once sad for the pitiful lives they’d led and relieved that the era of the mall dolphins was over.

But the Vancouver Aquarium is not the mall. It is not SeaWorld, either.

Like it or not, the presence of cetaceans in captivity has real and direct impacts on improving the outcome for species in the wild. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)

Before taking the job, I did some research on the aquarium’s various conservation programs, and on standards of care for cetaceans in captivity. And yeah, I watched Blackfish, too. The aquarium’s mandate as a conservation organization, non-profit status and pioneering work in rehabilitating and releasing sick and injured animals gave me confidence. I knew I couldn’t work for an organization I didn’t believe in. I wouldn’t risk my carefully built professional reputation for something I wasn’t prepared to publicly defend.

Still, I had misgivings. All the dolphins and porpoises to join the aquarium in recent years were rescues, deemed non-releasable by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the practice of collecting cetaceans from the wild had long been abandoned. But, at the time, the aquarium still had a breeding program among its belugas, and three of the babies born at the facility had died by the age of three. That fact made my gut tighten, but I was open to learning about the scientific justification behind breeding in captivity, and captivity in general. I said so in the job interview when I was asked, point blank, about my feelings about those issues.

What I learned is that there is no simple solution here. The question of whether we ought to keep cetaceans in captivity isn’t about choosing between right or wrong—we are far past that point. It is about deciding on the lesser of evils.

Oceans at a Tipping Point

Working onsite at the aquarium was at once enchanting and sobering. I’d arrive each morning to the sound of barking sea lions and spend my lunch breaks browsing the galleries accompanied by gasps of awe-struck children falling in love with the animals there, and by extension the underwater world. They were learning, many for the first time, what exists below the flat expanse of the ocean’s surface, and that what we do on land affects the creatures that live there.

“I’d arrive each morning to the sound of barking sea lions and spend my lunch breaks browsing the galleries accompanied by gasps of awe-struck children falling in love with the animals there, and by extension the underwater world.” (Photo: Flickr)

The rest of the time I hammered away at pithy blog posts and short, promotional blurbs in an attempt to transform a bleak and complex reality into visual soundbites aimed at capturing our internet-age attention spans and inspiring action. Over and over again, I’d type alarming statistics about the state of our oceans: climate change is causing the Arctic to warm at twice the rate of the rest of the world; sea ice thickness has declined by 65 percent in the last 40 years, while the area it covers has been reduced by half since 2000. More than 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks have been depleted, putting at risk not just biodiversity but also the more than one billion people—or fully 12 percent of the world’s human population—who depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their diets and their livelihood. We are in the midst of what scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction, with species going extinct the last century at a rate more than 100 times higher than in any previous period in Earth’s history. And, unlike previous die-offs, it is the larger animals at the top of the food chain that are most at risk.

I hammered away at pithy blog posts and short, promotional blurbs in an attempt to transform a bleak and complex reality into visual soundbites aimed at capturing our internet-age attention spans.

Counter to the well-meaning public sentiment that won over the Vancouver Park Board in its recent decision to move toward banning all cetaceans—even rescued ones—from public display in Stanley Park, there is a real and direct relationship between housing some cetaceans in captivity at facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium, and avoiding a future where the only cetaceans left on earth are those in tanks. It does, however, come at a cost. We now know cetaceans have complex social relationships, communications systems and family bonds, and it is likely some do experience boredom, grief and isolation when in captivity. Handled incorrectly, these animals may suffer despite our best intentions. But here’s the thing: they are increasingly suffering in the wild, too. Not every being on this earth—human or animal—gets to live a life in ideal circumstances. Only a very lucky few will experience that. The question is: what is our obligation to the unlucky ones? Especially those whose luck has been changed by our human hands?

The Pros and Cons of Captivity

My first order of business working at the aquarium was to sit down with several of its research scientists—the people who act as direct conduits between research done on cetaceans in captivity and conservation efforts in the wild. It was my job to distill years of research into digestible stories that sounded optimistic and upbeat.

The first person I met was beluga expert Dr. Valeria Vergara, who’d just returned from her second summer conducting field research in Cunningham Inlet, Nunavut. She’d been up there making underwater recordings of hundreds of belugas that summer in shallow estuaries, aiming to advance a hypothesis that might help save endangered belugas in another part of Canada.

Quebec’s St. Lawrence Seaway was once home to more than 10,000 beluga whales, today, estimates put the population at fewer than 1,000. Calves are dying off at an alarming rate, with dozens of newborn belugas washing up dead on Quebec’s shores in the last decade. Vergara is one of the scientists working to figure out why.

Dr. Valeria Vergara drops a hydrophone into the Arctic waters of Cunningham Inlet, Nunavut, to record the communications of beluga whales. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)

She told me that baby belugas, much like human children, are born with limited language skills, which grow as they do. Like our own babies, belugas can call for their mothers, but with limited range. The contact calls newborn calves are soft, similar to the sound of running your finger over a comb. They are easily drowned out by the noise of ship traffic and other industrial activity that has exploded in the St. Lawrence over the last few decades, and may soon disrupt the pristine beluga habitat in Cunningham Inlet as melting sea ice opens the Arctic to tourism, industry and shipping.

It had never occurred to me before, but our oceans aren’t just polluted by chemicals, fishing gear, microplastics and other man-made debris. The underwater world is often deafening—full of the sounds of grinding ship motors, clinking gears, and whirring propellers all amplified by the water (sound waves travel faster and farther through water than through air, I learned).

Not every being on this earth—human or animal—gets to live a life in ideal circumstances. Only a very lucky few will experience that.

Now imagine you’re a whale living in a busy shipping route. Belugas spend half the year in pitch-black Arctic waters and are reliant on sound to keep track of each other, especially their young. Vergara’s research, which she took last summer to the St. Lawrence, points to ship traffic as a major factor contributing to all those dead baby belugas. It is likely their mothers can’t hear them over the mechanical din, and so they get separated, lost, and ultimately may succumb to predation or starvation. But Vergara’s work could change that. Her findings could inform policies that limit industrial and shipping noise in beluga habitat, inspire the invention of quieter ship motors, or rejig shipping routes altogether. At this point, it is one of the most promising leads as to how to turn the tides for belugas in the St. Lawrence, and ensure populations in other areas don’t suffer the same fate.

But what does this have to do with the aquarium? The line is continuous and direct. Vergara couldn’t have studied the impact of ship noise on beluga mothers and calves if she didn’t first understand how they communicate. Observing mothers and calves at the aquarium allowed her to identify and isolate those contact calls—that soft, thumb-on-comb sound—that newborn belugas make. It meant that when Vergara went out in the field to observe whales in the wild, she knew exactly what she was looking for. Without captive belugas at the aquarium, she’d have been at a loss as to where to start, unlikely to decipher those low-frequency sounds from all the other underwater noise and general beluga chatter—they are an incredibly “talkative” species.

But does that potential happy ending justify the means?

Dr. Valeria Vergara advances research which began at the Vancouver Aquarium by observing wild populations in Cunningham Inlet, Nunavut. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)

I thought about that a lot when, on my breaks, I’d go look at the beluga “habitat” or “environment” (never did we refer to it as a tank or a pool), and when I wrote about Vergara’s work. I often wrote that her research at the aquarium relied on Aurora and Qila, the mother-daughter beluga pair that recently died. But that isn’t quite true. It actually started with Tuvaq, Aurora’s second calf who died suddenly in 2005 at the age of three. Tiqa, Qila’s calf, died of heart failure in 2011, also at about three years of age, and Nala, Aurora’s youngest, died at just over a year old after swallowing pebbles and a penny that were in the beluga habitat (she’d been found to have a physical deformity that prevented the debris from passing through her digestive system).

I wasn’t hiding the fact that these belugas had died, it’s on the public record, but we didn’t want to remind people of it, either. Nobody wants to think about dead baby whales. Not in captivity, and not in the wild.

So, how do you weigh the potential costs of captivity against those very real benefits applied in the wild? I’d mull that morality question while watching Qila, the first beluga whale to be conceived and born in captivity in Canada, execute what was referred to by staff as a “pattern swim,” a daily ritual that saw her glide diagonally across the pool, belly up, flip around under a rock and come back again. She’d do this for hours, like an endless piece of yarn threading the eye of a needle.

Biologists, vets and animal trainers are very disapproving of anthropomorphizing animals—assigning them human emotions and characteristics—this is problematic for many reasons I’ll get into later. But, as a lay-person staring into the eyes of those animals, it’s nearly impossible not to do. There’s no other way to put it: Qila looked bored, possibly even depressed.

Levi became the first harbour porpoise in Canada to be rehabilitated and released into the wild in 2013. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)

So did the harbour porpoises, Jack, who also died last year, and Daisy. Both rescued as babies and deemed non-releasable by the DFO, they’d hang out for hours in opposite ends of their pool, faces stuck in the vents that pumped in water. I wondered if it reminded them, on some cellular level, of the rush of swimming fast through the ocean—little is known about these elusive creatures, but porpoises are recognized as one of the speedier cetaceans.

But then, their presence at the aquarium directly helped their kind in the wild, as well. In 2013, the Vancouver Aquarium executed the first successful rehabilitation and release of an adult harbour porpoise in Canada, a feat made possible only because veterinary staff had learned from Jack and Daisy essential things like how much food a porpoise needs, what water temperature they require and what healthy vital signs should be. That information is now being used to inform efforts to save the vaquita, a porpoise on the brink of extinction in Mexico, where there are thought to be fewer than 60 individuals left.

Things seemed to improve for Jack and Daisy when they were moved in with the belugas, a step taken to shake up the normal routine of all the animals involved. It made me feel better to see the porpoise zipping around the much bigger enclosure, exploring new crevices and corners. For Qila though, I wasn’t sure it made much of a difference.

Feelings vs. Facts

In the weeks since the Vancouver Park Board voted unanimously to ban all cetaceans, rescued or otherwise, from display at the aquarium, my Facebook feed has been more divided than in the aftermath of the U.S. election.

Half my “friends” are ardent supporters of the aquarium, half are passionate crusaders for the end of captivity, no matter what.

While the two sides generally agree phasing out the beluga program and captive breeding is the right thing to do, the issue of what to do with the rescued and rehabilitated animals is the sticking point.

With an estimated 60 individuals left in the wild, Vaquita porpoises are facing extinction due to threats from fishing, industry and loss of habitat.

Proponents of rehabilitating rescued animals in captivity are heartsick, knowing that without a permanent facility at the aquarium’s Stanley Park facility, future rescues will likely be euthanized. And they worry about the impact this will have on the scientific research being applied to conservation efforts in the wild. (As an aside: the suggestion by Park Board commissioners that rescued cetaceans in future could be kept at the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in east Vancouver demonstrates a troubling lack of understanding of the alternatives available. Although it has a fancy name, the centre is nothing more than a collection of above-ground swimming pools suitable for rehabilitating seals or the temporary treatment of very young or very sick cetaceans.)

Those supporting the ban argue no amount of research justifies captivity. They believe any suffering on the part of the individual outweighs any potential benefit to the species as a whole. If our oceans are past the point of being able to support cetaceans and other marine life, they argue, perhaps we’re best to let them alone to die in the wild.

Faced with a life in captivity, some people would choose death. For others, the clear choice is life.

Neither side can help themselves from viewing the issue through an anthropocentric, a human-focused, lens. Everyone seems to ask: what would you choose? But that’s just the problem with anthropomorphizing: it doesn’t help us reach any useful conclusions. Faced with a life in captivity, even if it meant saving human kind from extinction, some people would choose death. For others, the clear choice is life. But since subjective, anthropomorphic feelings seem to have taken precedence over facts in the debate on captivity, let’s follow that logic.

Just as humans are not all alike, neither are cetaceans. A harbour porpoise is not dolphin, nor an orca a beluga. Not every species, or every individual within that species, reacts the same way to captivity. If Qila was bored, Chester, the aquarium’s false killer whale (actually a type of dolphin) seemed completely at home. Rescued off the coast of Tofino as a neonate, so young he didn’t yet have teeth, Chester is a mystery. The aquarium’s veterinary staff and researchers don’t know how he got there, nor do scientists know much about his species, other than that false killer whales are normally found in tropical waters near Mexico and the south Pacific, and that this species has been prone to mass stranding in recent years. In January, more than 80 of them died after beaching themselves in Florida.

Chester, the false killer whale, was found stranded on a beach near Tofino in 2014. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)

What is known is that without the aquarium’s intervention, Chester would be dead. Watching him rush to greet the first squealing child at his window every morning, I found it hard to believe he would have chosen that alternative. Chester has never known the wild, and is quick to engage with the public, as well as the animal trainers and husbandry staff he can see through the underwater windows that peer into their offices, out of public view. The staff are constantly interacting with Chester, playing “catch” with his favourite toys, and teasing him. The most accurate description I can fathom for the relationship is that he is like a dog; a different species but a part of the family. It is scientific blasphemy to say this: but I swear I’ve seen that dolphin smile.

Chester’s cohabitant was Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin who transferred to the aquarium after she was rescued from a drift net off the coast of Japan. Her injuries were so severe her two flippers had to be partially amputated. Like Chester, Helen would have died if not for human intervention, and like Chester, she seemed active, energetic, and engaged. I got the sense she was almost grateful to be alive. And she might well have been.

If we can accept, as most do, that cetaceans have an intelligence on par with, or exceeding that of humans, if we can argue in the case against captivity that they may suffer in captivity, why can we not also accept they might also be capable of understanding when they’ve been giving a second shot at life? That some may actually choose a life in captivity rather than be left to succumb to predation, starvation or drowning because of irresponsible human activity. Is it so inconceivable that some of these animals, given the choice, may be OK with sacrificing their freedom in order to become ambassadors for their species? To instantly demonstrate to humans the consequences of our actions? To make concrete and understandable a concept that, out of sight, seems distant and obscure?

Chester today resides at the Vancouver Aquarium, where he shares a pool with Helen, a Pacific white sided dolphin rescued after being caught in a drift net in Japan. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)

Of course, we cannot decipher that. So we must err on the side of caution, but on which side does it lay? Perhaps what’s needed is nuanced criteria for assessing whether rescued cetaceans are well-suited to long-term captivity on an individual basis. Perhaps rescued cetaceans deemed non-releasable that display ongoing or worsening signs of mental distress in captivity should be humanely euthanized. Those that adjust well should live, serving a dual purpose of educating the public and providing an opportunity for ongoing research to better the state of our oceans. Most agree cetaceans should not be exploited for human entertainment, but the blanket ban proposed by the park board is a blunt instrument taken to a complex problem. Handled incorrectly, it has the potential to create more of what we don’t want: sick, dead and suffering animals, and less of what we do want: live and healthy wild ones.

My perspective is that we must do what we think is best for the individual and the species based on fact, not feelings. It is a fact that our oceans are in peril, and that animals are suffering in the wild as a result of human activity. It is a fact that we have put ourselves in a terrible situation: having to choose between saving the many or the few. But that is where we are. Whatever we decide, we will have to accept the consequences.

Note: This post has been edited. An earlier version referred to Aurora as the beluga whale with a pattern swim.

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