Janos Maté: Give citizens a vote on whale and dolphin captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium

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      The following is a letter that was sent to Vancouver park board commissioners by WhaleFriends founding member Janos Maté. It was prompted by a February 12, 2014, article published in the Georgia Straight titled “Vancouver Aquarium bucks national trend by keeping whales and dolphins”.

      Dear park board commissioner,

      I wrote to you on July 9, 2013, and I write again, to request that you take immediate action to ensure that during the next civic election, in 2014, the citizens of Vancouver will finally get the democratic opportunity to answer the question through a plebiscite, whether or not they are in favour of phasing out cetacean (whales and dolphins) captivity in Stanley Park.

      The Vancouver Aquarium resides on public lands in Stanley Park and therefore, the parks board has the responsibility to ensure that the animals kept captive in the aquarium are not suffering due to the conditions of their confinement. The parks board also has responsibility to ensure that the citizens of the city are given the democratic option to express their opinions on matters of great concern.

      Dolphins are highly intelligent and social animals. They have human-like emotions of joy and grief. They have self-awareness. They exhibit culture and they have been observed looking after the sick ones in their community.

      Just like humans, dolphins suffer greatly in captivity.

      The American Humane Society has concluded that “keeping small cetaceans like dolphins in confinement in concrete tanks is inhumane beyond comprehension”. They suffer whether or not they were taken from the wild or bred for captivity.

      Mindful of the above characteristics of dolphins, in May 2013, the Government of India officially recognized dolphins as non-human persons, whose rights to life and liberty must be respected. India thereby banned the import, capture, and captivity of cetaceans in all public and private enterprises.

      These animals are kept in captivity by the Vancouver aquarium for one reason only: profits. There is no educational or scientific value to the aquarium’s whale and dolphin displays. An March 9, 2010, article in the Vancouver Sun quotes the internationally respected oceanographer and educator Jacques Cousteau, stating: “the educational benefit of watching a dolphin in captivity would be like learning about humanity only by watching prisoners in solitary confinement”.

      In 1996, the parks board decided that should the aquarium request permission to expand in Stanley Park, a city-wide referendum would be held. In 2005, the parks board decided that the question of phasing out cetacean captivity in Stanley Park should be put to a city wide referendum. Then, in 2006, the parks board rescinded both of those earlier decisions, denying the citizens of Vancouver the democratic opportunity to have a direct say on this issue.

      On July 19, 2010, the park board discussed and rejected a motion to hold a plebiscite during the 2011 civic election on the question of phasing out cetacean (whales and dolphins) captivity in Vancouver parks. The commissioners who voted against the motion cited their concerns regarding a potential lawsuit against the city by the aquarium, should such a plebiscite be held prior to 2015. The existing contract between the city and the aquarium as being up for review in 2015 was referenced, but the legal grounds for a lawsuit were never fully explained or verified. The fear of an unsubstantiated lawsuit was used expediently for voting against the motion. How can a democratic plebiscite be the basis for a lawsuit?

      Reportedly, the Vision Vancouver park board plans to hold a full review of this matter in 2015. Holding a plebiscite during 2014 would provide a solid basis for such a review.

      The citizens of Vancouver have called for the phasing out of cetacean captivity in the Vancouver Aquarium: over the years the parks board has received over 20,000 signatures on petitions in this regard.

      Commissioner, I am very concerned that as has been reported, upon completion of the current $100 million expansion, the Aquarium plans to expand its captive whale and dolphin populations. This must not be allowed to happen.

      Commissioner, I repeat: For all of the above reasons, I again respectfully ask that you take immediate action to ensure that during the next civic election, in 2014, that the citizens of Vancouver will finally be able answer the question through a plebiscite, whether or not they are in favour of phasing out cetacean captivity in Stanley Park.

      Thank you.

      Janos Maté is a long-time environmental, peace, and animal-rights activist working with Greenpeace. This post has been edited for spelling and grammar.



      Juan Carlos

      Feb 16, 2014 at 5:14pm

      Possibly a little off-topic... but "non-human persons"...? That's quite a designation, and a bit of a problematic slippery-slope. Many animals are self-aware and suffer in captivity, including all of the ones we eat and turn into shoes and jackets.

      I understand there are people yelling, "Yeah! Exactly!", but the reality of the world isn't that, especially outside of North America. If we're going to be imposing human-like rights onto animals, we're going to run into serious problems.

      sam lobalbo

      Feb 16, 2014 at 6:01pm

      they shoot horses don't they


      Feb 16, 2014 at 7:00pm

      If corporations can have the legal status of "persons", then surely far more intelligent and caring species such as dolphins should qualify. And it is a far gone conclusion that marine 'parks' such as the Vancouver Aquarium need to enter a more enlightened era and let their 'people' go.


      Feb 16, 2014 at 8:28pm

      I think India is the last country we would want to emulate. Religious violence, caste system, bride burning, honour killings....At the end of the day, animals are just potatoes that eat and shit.


      Feb 16, 2014 at 11:31pm


      Could you please help me to speak up for these tragic captives? This is an important campaign to demand the rehabilitation and freeing of the dolphins at Seaworld on the Gold Coast in Australia. ♥♥♥

      8,000 signatures in just a few weeks.



      Feb 17, 2014 at 1:36am

      What is the scientific name of dolphin/


      Feb 17, 2014 at 1:16pm

      Whales and dolphins are highly intelligent, emotionally complex beings that suffer deeply in captivity. It is a very simple when you ask the question, do they wish to be kidnapped from their families and communities to spend the rest of their lives in a small concrete prison? I think not. Cetaceans in captivity has absolutely nothing to do with conservation, it is about profit plain and simple. Slavery is slavery regardless of the species in servitude.

      Janet Morandin

      Feb 17, 2014 at 1:30pm

      Shut the aquarium down...return these beautiful whales and dolphins to the ocean where they belong!


      Feb 18, 2014 at 7:22pm

      Bottlenose dolphins do not suffer in captivity. Show me the facts that say they have a lower lifespan than their populations in the wild and I'll believe you. And trainers do not starve the dolphins, it's called positive reinforcement. Do you starve your dog or cat to train them? Use your brain people.