John Nightingale: Park board picks a fight with mother nature

The following is an August 1 letter by John Nightingale, president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium. It was originally published on the Vancouver Aquarium's website following a July 31 park board vote to end the breeding of whales and dolphins on lands where the park board exercises jurisdiction.

Regardless of the species, reproduction is the most fundamental law of nature. It’s inside all of us, and it’s there for a good reason. Inside the DNA of every living thing is the basic need to reproduce and carry on. Consequently, the decision by the Vancouver Park Board to prohibit the breeding of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium is misinformed, misguided and pits the Park Board against the facts, the science and Mother Nature herself.

The Park Board’s use of the word breeding implies that we carry out some sort of planned, regulated or artificial reproduction program. We don’t do that at the Vancouver Aquarium. Our animals do mate, just as they do in the wild, because we keep them in natural groupings – just as they live in nature. Mating is the most natural thing in the world. In fact, sex and reproduction play an important role in our research and in our education programs. For the Park Board to stop whales and dolphins from doing what comes naturally is like telling Park Board commissioners not to have sex, ever. It’s unnatural.

The political decision made by the Park Board was not based on the facts or science presented. It certainly didn’t take into consideration testimony from dozens of the world’s scientific community, including experts in animal welfare and animal cognition. It also wasn’t based on the support the Aquarium receives from its 75,000 members, 1,500 conservation staff and volunteers, or one million visitors each year. And it doesn’t reflect the sentiment of Vancouver residents, as shown by our polling which indicates broad public support for Vancouver Aquarium. It was a decision based on a relative handful of activists who want to close, over time, Vancouver’s 58-year-old, award-winning marine science centre.

Canada’s beluga whales are facing some pretty tough times. Changes in climate, increased marine pollution, and many other human-based problems put cetaceans and our country’s oceans at risk. The handful of belugas at the Aquarium is vital to our research efforts in helping us understand and help save Canada’s wild beluga population. The Park Board decision now puts our research, our international reputation, and Canada’s belugas at serious risk over the medium and longer term.

The Vancouver Aquarium will need to take some time to determine the real consequences and options open to us in light of the Park Board decision.

We sincerely hoped that the Park Board would join us, and the thousands of Vancouverites and residents of the lower mainland, who support our efforts to protect and help save Canada’s belugas. That turns out not to be the case. Instead, the current Vancouver Park Board, most of whom are not running again, and can’t be held accountable at the upcoming municipal election, have decided that their legacy is to pick a fight with Mother Nature.

Comments (17) Add New Comment
Daniel Tanner
John Nightingale is fighting a battle he cannot win. By railing against this decision, he is showing everyone that his claims that Vancouver Aquarium is all about research and conservation are nothing but hollow words. He is continuing their pattern of misinformation by claiming that they have no formal breeding program, just like they hid the fact that they have 9, not 5 belugas, and failed to correct it over the probably hundreds of times that number appeared in the press.
Let's face it, they can continue to save frogs, investigate the sea star disease, and do many other things that will benefit our oceans without breeding whales and dolphins in their tanks.
As of right now, the only thing conservationist about their attitude seems to be their desire to conserve their bottom line.
Rating: -10
Russ in Victoria
The thoughts expressed by Mr. Nightingale crossed my mind when I first learned of this decision on the morning news today. First, the park board has banned the Vancouver Aquarium from doing something that it doesn't actually do, and second, they expect the animals to abstain from sex. Do they want the aquarium to provide a 24x7 in-tank chaperone?

The next thought that crossed my mind was that a bunch of Republicans must have snuck across the border and taken control of the Vancouver Park Board.
Rating: +10
A totally delusional act by a bunch of elected humans who would ever have thought such a thing could happen? Against science, public opinion and (gasp) common sense....tell me it's not so! While this maybe the 21st century and "humans" may have been around close to a million years stupidity is the one sure thing you can bet on.
Rating: +15
Tommy Khang
Vision Vancouver the Anti-Whale Sex Party! But wait there's more: The Anti-Neighbourhoods Party! The Anti-Seniors Party! The we don't care about consulting you Party! The Say-We Can Solve Homelessness by 2015 - Oh Wait We Can't Party! The Our Spin Doctors are Desperate For Votes so Lets Smear the NPA Party! The We Build Bike Lanes for our Friends Party!

I am sure there is more.
Rating: -1
Alan Layton
Tommy Khang - where was the NPA during the vote?
Rating: -10
Tommy Khang
@Alan Coupar stated that he had to recuse himself from the vote due to a connection between himself, his employer and the aquarium. According to other media sources DeGenova is away in Europe.
Rating: -6
Just a Voter
And Alan Layton, what difference would it have made to have any other party in the room? The Vision Vancouver commissioners had decided how they would vote, they control the majority, and as expected they voted as a block. When's the last time that ANY vote in Council or Park Board ever included an independent position on the part of a Vision Vancouver representative?
Rating: +8
I am a biologist and I have NEVER read anything less scientific than this letter written by John Nightingale!!! It is more than embarrassing for him to compare birth control implemented for whales that are only and exclusively kept in captivity to bring money into the bank accounts of the aquarium, with the sex of park board commissioners. Let's be honest about it, the purpose of baby whales (and of course adult whales as well) is only and exclusively to crab as much cash out of peoples pockets as possible, for NOTHING ELSE!!! He wants to fill his pocket with money, nothing else....and the whales have to pay for it!!
Just look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. They are a world-leading aquarium with a world-leading research centre, not Vancouver, and the have no Cetaceans.
Rating: -8
contraceptives and cetacean anesthesia are high risk, is the right solution really to force animals like jack and daisy apart?
Rating: +4
A Hoffman
Paelzer, please link the peer reviewed articles or thesis dissertation you have written on captive cetacean behaviour or mating practices. I assume that since you are "a biologist" and therefore apparently an authority on this, you have some research to share with us that supports your assertion.
Rating: 0
John Jensen
Nature was taken out of the equation when they rescued the animals. If they are incapable of giving a seal a vasectomy their competency is in question.
Rating: -2
Paelzer, what kind of biologist are you? "Biologist" covers a pretty broad spectrum of activities. You may specialize in the European boreal forest in their resident rodent populations - doesn't make you an expert on cetaceans in captivity.

Is it your contention that there is no research whatsoever being done on whales at the Vancouver aquarium as your statement that the only reason they are there is for bringing in money? An actual scientist would probably not make such an ill informed statement in such an absolutist way.

More likely you are one of the handful of activists claiming to be a biologist in order to add credence to your position.

Rating: -1
Absolutely ridiculous board decision. Are they putting up money to isolate the males from the females in duplicate environments? How do they expect this to be enforced? And what if a cetacean does end up pregnant.. are they going to demand abortions? Will there be fines? Utter nonsense.
Rating: +2
John in Vancouver
Once again Vision's arrogance trumps their ability to make informed decisions on yet another major issue, one which will have negative long- term implications far beyond their collective intelligence to comprehend. Vision loves to spew how "progressive" and inclusive they are, but in reality they are just the same as the Harper Conservatives when it comes to looking over the facts of an issue and making important decisions - demonstrating willful ignorance, a disdain for pragmatism, blind adherence to ideological beliefs, and rejecting input from the community at large and instead relying on input from radical narrow- minded activists. They are bullies who, like Harper federally, hate the democratic process and will ram their agenda down our throats no matter how vocal people are against them. Hopefully come election time in the fall the majority of voters in Vancouver will be wise enough to vote for anyone else than these self- entitled wolves in sheep's clothing.
Rating: -1
Barry William Teske
Unlike the animals who cannot speak for themselves . sound desparate.
No worries.
I am sure there are lots of others things you can hold captive ...
Rating: -1
Vision just did what thousands of people in the city wanted them to do, fuckface, and that's to phase out the happy dancing Flipper aspect of the Aquarium. You have the right to show your animals that you are rehabilitating, count your blessings and your days to retirement.
Rating: -4
This ban does not mean anything meaningful if not articulated further. It will business as usual via their Sea world partnership where the remaining 7 VA belugas are be currently warehoused. The ban is not going to stop what happens at Sea world nor which belugas will reenter into the park. They really should of limited the numbers. Because with more intended expansions with larger tanks @ VA they really should of been more explicit & meaningful.

I went to sea world last year and saw how our belugas looked very thin and sick. The real issue is who is going on check on that? We have no jurisdiction. I don't think one successful calf in 50 years and 3 infant death in 5 years is success here. They are going to do the breeding else regardless given the business of it.

There must be transparency & public consultation as a true democracy in these process so not sure why everyone is so upset that the parks board made a decision where public thinking is now. Hello!! The park board is the landlord!!! This is not a corporate sea world. Get your own land then but if it's in Stanley Park we have a right to know. We must not hand over land for further expansions if it's no longer in the public interest.

How about the belugas that are "on loan" 9 bit to other aquariums? This is a profitable business, being run by a charity....For all those nay-sayers. You live in Vancouver, there are a multitude of whale watching companies out there. Go take your kids out whale watching instead of Disneyland, connect them with the natural environment. See what the whales and dolphins live like in the real world and suddenly that small pool looks like a very lonely place. These are highly sentient beings, not some fish.

Note that the Aquarium does some very good significant science and marine conservation above and beyond the captive cetacean program. They do very good marine mammal rehabilitation work. This doesn't mean any of that has to stop. Monterey Aquarium doesn't have whales in captivity and has constantly rising attendance numbers. With good marketing, there is no reason Vanaqua can't do the same.
Rating: -3
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