Vancouver Aquarium could look to Baltimore for a plan to free its whales and dolphins

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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.”

Despite such calls for change at the aquarium, CEO John Nightingale has repeatedly told media that plans to acquire more large marine mammals will “likely” go ahead.

“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.

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Daniel Tanner

Jul 2, 2014 at 7:27pm

It is an incredible turn to hear that the head of a large national aquarium believes that people do not learn to properly respect these animals when seeing them in captivity. To have someone of that stature make such an admission is the aquarium equivalent of Edward Snowden - it shakes the whole justification for these places to the core and exposes the real truth of the matter.

Barbara

Jul 2, 2014 at 8:45pm

They can say whatever they want

Daylon

Jul 2, 2014 at 8:54pm

It's an absolute breath of fresh air to see a CEO think of the animals before the money or facility(in Nightingales case he likes to call it "rescue" and rehab"). I applaud that this aquarium is a forward thinking aquarium. I only hope the board of the Aquarium understand how Their current business model is going to fail. They need to be leaders not followers.

Michele Baillie

Jul 3, 2014 at 1:18am

I believe Cetaceans are ensouled; people like you and I. Let them go.

George Terwilliger

Jul 3, 2014 at 8:13am

You know what I find rather ironic in terms of this whole debate is that just down the road from the aquarium, there is a horse drawn carriage ride that operates as a for profit business that doesn't seem to generate any controversy. Riding a Horse drawn carriage certainly isn't education or conservation. These same animal activists must have seen it as they make their way to the aquarium. Even Constance Barnes, the voice of the whales has supported the operator for over 15 years. Indeed in March of this year a motion passed without any opposition to a

future thinkers

Jul 3, 2014 at 8:17am

In changing times, if an organization were to survive, it needs to evaluate and change to fit the climate. Baltimore National Aquarium obviously has strong leadership who is thinking about its future and how thrive in the future world. Dinasours like the Vancouver Aquarium (under the self serving leadership of John Nightingale) cannot see past its current bank deposits, will crumble and die. No amount of expansion is going to save them if they refuse to change. The Vancouver Aquarium will pour all its money and pride into its own demise.

Holly Chapman

Jul 3, 2014 at 10:13am

I think it would be wonderful if all of these places were forced to watch Black Fish.....

Jon Wrigley

Jul 3, 2014 at 10:53am

The Georgia Straight does realize that unlike America, Canada only ever had a handful of aquariums in the first place right? I mean technically the Vancouver Aquarium is the only active aquarium in Canada that displays cetaceans, since MarineLand is technically a theme park with an animal display and the other aquariums of which there are about four have never displayed cetaceans.

Ian Boothby

Jul 3, 2014 at 2:56pm

No captive whale has even been released and survived. Freeing them means their deaths. Any article that talks about freeing the whales is lying to its readers for the sake of a catchy headline.

Hank Werner

Jul 4, 2014 at 8:49am

@Ian but no one cares about that! Seriously facts are for suckers as long as they free the majestic beasts that I can commune with because we are one with them. Also Ian you need to watch that documentary about orcas at Seaworld which must be how all animals are treated in captivity!

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