The head of the Baltimore National Aquarium has revealed his organization is debating the future of its popular dolphin programs.
John Racanelli recently told Al Jazeera America that staff are discussing ending captive breeding programs, and also releasingdolphins currently held in tanks into the wild.
“Having calves in this setting may not be the best possible thing for their well-being and health in the long run,” he said.
“The truth is that dolphins are far more cognizant…have much higher level of cognitive capacity, and have very highly demonstrated social behaviors,” he continued. “They can obviously sense future events and correlate future and past events. The more we learn here at the aquarium, the more we realize how different these dolphins are from most of their other cousins in the ocean.”
Al Jazeera describes Racanelli as the first head of a zoo or aquarium in the United States to speak publicly in favour of abolishing a captive breeding program.
It reports that the Baltimore aquarium began discussing ending its cetacean exhibits after two dolphin calves died in 2011.
“We’re asking some tough questions, we really are,” Racanelli said. “I feel we’ve really only scratched the surface.”
He also addressed common arguments used to support keeping large marine mammals in captivity.
Asked what could become of the facility’s dolphins—several of which were born in captivity and have never experienced life in the wild—Racanelli said the answer could be a “national dolphin sanctuary”.
He also took issue with the suggestion that the global population of dolphins benefits from a relatively small number of animals kept in captivity, arguing humans do not learn to properly respect the animals when they interact with them at aquariums.
“In many cases, when people see dolphins in this kind of sterile setting, the messages that they take away with them are not in fact the ones that we as conservationists want them to,” Racanelli said.
The Baltimore aquarium CEO’s statements stand in stark contrast to those made in recent months by top officials at the Vancouver Aquarium.
On June 13, the aquatic facility at Stanley Park unveiled the first phase of a multi-year expansion. The construction project will eventually see larger tanks installed to accommodate greater numbers of beluga whales and dolphins.
Plans to increase the number of cetaceans kept at the Vancouver Aquarium have become controversial.
On April 9, Mayor Gregor Robertson called for an end to whale and dolphin captivity in Vancouver. The aquarium responded by issuing a statement that questioned the mayor’s understanding of research conducted at the facility.
“We appreciate the fact that he [Robertson] is very supportive of the Aquarium, and we recognize he has personal feelings,” that email read, “but believe he might not understand the vital role belugas and dolphins play in our important conservation efforts.”
Then, on May 26, the Straight reported that renowned primatologist Jane Goodall had issued a letter making the case for an end to whale and dolphin captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium.
In response, the aquarium issued a statement attributed to vice-president Clint Wright that suggested Goodall did not fully comprehend the situation.
“The Vancouver Aquarium has the greatest respect for Jane Goodall but her information may be incomplete,” Wright stated. “The current science is clear that beluga whales live as long, if not longer, while in human care. Scientific and behavioural evidence shows that cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium are content and thriving.”
“We do intend that cetaceans continue to play a vital role in engaging the public,” he told the Straight in a March 11 telephone interview.
The Vancouver Aquarium presently keeps two Pacific white-sided dolphins named Helen and Hana, two beluga whales named Aurora and Qila, a pair of Pacific harbour porpoises named Jack and Daisy, plus a number of sea otters, seals, and sea lions. It also owns three additional belugas currently on “breeding loan” to SeaWorld parks in the United States.
The Stanley Park facility is now one of the last aquariums in Canada holding large marine mammals in captivity.