Ending the display of whales and dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium would hardly be worth celebrating, a leading thinker in the animal-rights movement says.
That’s because the aquarium would likely put more seals, penguins, and other “clearly sentient” animals in captivity to replace its cetacean exhibits, Gary Francione told the Georgia Straight.
“They’re not going to shut down,” the distinguished professor at the Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey said by phone from his home in Pennsylvania. “It’s like saying, ‘Let’s take certain animals out of the zoo.’ Well, the zoo doesn’t shut down. They just get other animals. So what’s the victory at the end of the day?”
A growing public debate about the future of whales and dolphins at the aquarium in Stanley Park is threatening to become a civic-election issue. Opponents of cetacean captivity are pushing for a citywide plebiscite this November. But almost no one is talking about freeing the thousands of other animals at the aquarium.
Marley Daviduk, an animal-rights activist with the Vancouver Animal Defense League and the local branch of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, told the Straight that anticaptivity campaigners are focusing on “realistically” achievable goals. According to her, the popularity of the documentary films Blackfish and The Cove has presented an opportunity to stop the aquarium’s “intense confinement” of cetaceans. However, Daviduk maintained that many people still aren’t ready to hear a “total liberation” message.
“It’s difficult, because, ideally, I think that we should be looking at these animals in the wild,” Daviduk said in an interview outside the aquarium. “But I don’t think we’re at a point in time right now where we can start calling to shut down aquariums.”
Situated on public land leased from the Vancouver park board, the aquarium is in the midst of a $100-million expansion that includes the construction of larger whale and dolphin tanks. The facility houses two belugas—another three are on loan to SeaWorld theme parks in the U.S.—and two Pacific white-sided dolphins. According to the Lifeforce Foundation, 39 cetaceans have died in captivity at the aquarium since it opened in 1956.
Andrew Newman, manager of security services for the aquarium, interrupted the Straight’s interview with Daviduk on the sidewalk near the facility’s entrance. Newman noted that management doesn’t “appreciate” any “inflammatory” activities, and he threatened to call police if Daviduk and this journalist didn’t leave the aquarium’s “private property”.
“If you show up and put signs up against our signs and stuff like that, it sort of confuses the message for some people too,” Newman said, referring to Daviduk’s sheet of paper bearing the word trapped. “You know, we’ve got ours. We don’t come and block yours.”
Daviduk responded: “If they’re going to keep dolphins and whales in captivity in tiny tanks, and we’re going to keep seeing dolphins and whales dying prematurely, then you’re going to get more and more people here.”
Green councillor Adriane Carr has proposed a motion—for council’s next meeting, on Tuesday (April 29)—calling for a November 15 plebiscite, unless the park board and the aquarium come to an agreement on “phasing out” cetacean captivity prior to the election.
In an April 9 statement, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson revealed that he opposes keeping whales and dolphins in tanks but doesn’t support holding a citywide vote. On April 17, Robertson told the Straight he had been against the aquarium’s holding of orcas, which ended in 2001. He declined to comment on the more than 700 other animal species, which include otters and sea lions, at the facility.
“I’m not going to weigh in on which species at the aquarium should be kept versus phased out,” Robertson said, during a break in the Vancouver police board’s meeting at the Ross Street gurdwara. “But—there’s real clarity—I feel that cetaceans are not deserving of captivity, and that’s a widely shared opinion these days.”
Francione is critical of anticaptivity campaigns that focus only on animals that are perceived to have humanlike intelligence, rather than on all sentient creatures. Such efforts allow us to “pat ourselves on the back and continue business as usual”, according to him.
“I think that’s like saying we should favour light-skinned people of colour rather than dark-skinned people of colour because they’re more like us,” Francione said. “I mean, this whole ‘like us’ business is morally problematic for me. The idea that we give greater moral weight to an animal like an orca because the animal is perceived to be more like us is, I think, speciesist.”
On March 25, Daviduk helped organize a protest inside the aquarium in which activists—bearing signs stating “Captivity is cruel” and other messages—disrupted a dolphin show. She said she hopes the upcoming Empty the Tanks rally on May 24 will be the biggest protest in the aquarium’s history.
As a child, Daviduk visited the aquarium many times. According to her, there’s some truth to aquarium representatives’ oft-repeated statements that seeing cetaceans in captivity bolsters public support for conservation efforts.
“I think, without knowing it, the aquarium is turning people into conservationists,” Daviduk said, “because they oppose what they are doing to the whales and dolphins there.”