Suffering is the core issue with whale and dolphin captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium

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      Do whales and dolphins suffer in captivity?

      That is the core question. All of the rationalizations for captivity (needed profit, educational value, scientific research value) are dependent on the answer to that question.

      And the scientific answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. Captive whales and dolphins do suffer greatly from the very condition of their confinement. Suffering is imbedded in captivity.

      And they suffer whether or not they were captured from the wild or bred for a lifetime of captivity. It is a self-serving misconception, propagated by institutions like SeaWorld and the Vancouver Aquarium, that whales and dolphins born into captivity do not suffer because they have never experienced their natural habitat. They don’t know any better. As if millions of years of evolution and genetic programming can be drastically altered in one generation. Do humans born into slavery not suffer from being denied the qualities of life that freedom bestows?

      When Vancouver city councillors were discussing enacting a bylaw to ban all wild animals in circuses in 1992, one of the key questions councillors asked was if wildlife born in captivity was still wildlife. The Vancouver Humane Society at the time provided enough scientific evidence that convinced councillors that even after many generations of being born in captivity, wild animals’ instincts remained wild.

      The American Humane Society has stated that keeping small cetaceans in concrete tanks is “inhumane beyond comprehension”. They suffer from the very definition of their confinement. There is no way that the aquarium can come close to replicating the social and natural environment that whales dolphins experience in the wild.

      They suffer from being deprived of their echo-location capability, which is the same as taking away human eyesight.

      They suffer from being in a confined space, like humans in a cage or in prison. John Nightingale, the CEO of the aquarium, told the Globe and Mail (April 8, 2014) that belugas are “pretty much an ideal animal to have in an aquarium” since they are not long-distance swimmers. And yet, the fact is that, species-dependent, belugas travel from hundreds to thousands of kilometres a year. And they routinely dive hundreds (sometimes up to a thousand) of metres deep. So how big are the concrete tanks in the Vancouver Aquarium. And how deep?

      Captive cetaceans also suffer from being denied participation in healthy social groupings and families, which are a mainstay of their lives in the wild.

      And of course they suffer from being denied the opportunity to hunt for their own live food.

      The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society writes: “the enormity and diversity of the natural habitat of these animals is in stark contrast to the alien, minuscule confines of captivity....The greatest abuse suffered by captive cetaceans lies in confinement itself....Captivity defies, depresses, and denies the instincts which define each animal: the captive bears scant resemblance to its wild counterpart.”

      The imbedded suffering of captivity cancels out all of the aquarium’s arguments for maintaining and expanding the cetacean captivity program.

      This imbedded suffering should also be the determining factor for how the park board and the city tackles this political issue.

      From an ethical or a moral perspective, the fact that whales and dolphins are sentient social beings that suffer greatly as a result of their confinement overrides all arguments in favour of maintaining cetaceans in captivity in Stanley Park .

      Are whales and dolphins sentient, intelligent, social beings?

      Science says they are. For example, an article in the October 2006 issue of the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science concluded that cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have self-awareness, that they recognize themselves in a mirror; that they have humanlike emotions of joy and grief; they exhibit culture, that is behaviour acquired through social learning; and they have been observed looking after the sick ones in their community.

      Lori Marino, a regular presenter at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with 8,000 members worldwide, argues that cetaceans should have legal rights due to the ethical and policy implications of their intelligence—and therefore should not be hunted nor captured, nor kept in captivity performing in marine parks. (See

      Mindful of the sentient nature 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” and thereby banned the import, capture, and captivity of cetaceans in all public and private enterprises. Other countries that have banned cetacean captivity include Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Costa Rica, and Chile.

      Education or miseducation

      While some children and youth are entertained and impressed by being up close to large marine mammals, others immediately see the suffering imbedded in captive exhibits.

      Entertainment and education are not synonymous. The aquarium never tells children the truth. The truth being that they are looking at suffering, intelligent animals. That they are looking at animals that were either kidnapped from their families or bred for a lifetime of captivity. By not telling children the real facts about what they are seeing the aquarium is actually miseducating them. Education can not be based on half-truths or falsehoods.

      The aquarium presents these magnificent beings as domesticated pets that can do tricks and acrobatics at command. The children do not learn about how these animals live in nature. They see a facsimile of who these animals really are.

      As Jacques Cousteau, the internationally respected oceanographer and educator, said, “the educational benefit of watching a dolphin in captivity would be like learning about humanity only by watching prisoners in solitary confinement”.

      The aquarium quaintly likes to say to the public: “These animals are their species’ ambassadors to the human race.” A more accurate description is that these animals are hostages to the human race. They were kidnapped from their family. A similar act by humans against other humans would be considered to be an act of terrorism or war.

      The aquarium claims that being up close to captive whales breeds empathy for these animals in children and the public and that raises support for their conservation and habitat protection in the wild. While this may have been true 40 years ago, it is no longer the case. Movies like March of the Penguins, The Cove, and Blackfish, and a myriad of nature documentaries on TV, have raised much greater public awareness about their subject matter than any captive exhibition.

      Furthermore, it is wrong to teach children that because humans have the power, they have the right to keep whales and dolphins in captivity. That is precisely the type of arrogance that humans bring to much of nature. An attitude that is rapidly eroding nature’s capacity to sustain life and endangering the future of many species, including that of humans.

      The scientific value of studying whales and dolphins in captivity

      The aquarium has had captive belugas since 1967, when they kidnapped Bella and Lugosi from the waters off Bristol Bay, Alaska. In 1976, they kidnapped Kavna (who was pregnant) and Sanaq from Churchill, Manitoba.

      Kavna’s calf Tuaq was the first baby whale to be born at the Vancouver Aquarium. Tuaq died a couple of months after birth, as have nine out of 10 cetacean calves born at the aquarium. In 1985, Allua and Churchill were captured off Churchill, Manitoba—along with an unnamed beluga who died four days after capture. Finally, in 1990, Aurora, Imaq, and Nanuq were captured also off Churchill, Manitoba.

      What scientific findings has the Vancouver Aquarium contributed to our overall understanding of belugas over the past 23 years? What actual research is the aquarium conducting, other than how to breed more belugas for captivity?

      Today it is well understood that the only way you can accurately study a species is in its natural habitat.

      The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society writes: “Research is largely conducted at marine parks in order to improve animal husbandry and veterinary knowledge. In the captive setting, research has undoubtedly yielded some important findings on marine mammal physiology, energetics, body growth, genetics and reproduction. However, these research findings have been motivated more from necessity than science: the necessity of keeping captives alive.” (And for breeding more cetaceans for a lifetime of captivity.)

      If we accept that whales and dolphins are intelligent, sentient social beings that suffer greatly as a consequence of their confinement, what scientific argument justifies such suffering? Do we accept human beings kept imprisoned under torturous conditions for the sake of scientific research?

      Just as you can not learn about humanity by studying a human being in a cage, you can’t learn about whales and dolphins by only observing them in concrete tanks.

      Business rationale for captivity

      The aquarium claims that the captive whale and dolphins exhibits are vital for its business plan, that without them the aquarium could not exist. In other words, they justify the imbedded suffering with the need for profit.

      Essentially, this is the same argument that the southern plantation owners used when justifying human slavery.

      From an ethical perspective, no profit rationale justifies the imbedded suffering of captivity. Would our society accept the profit rationale of a business or institution that blatantly kept humans in captivity under torturous conditions?

      The aquarium needs to develop a new business plan that does not include cetacean captivity. It is doable. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is very successful, and has no whales and dolphins in captivity.

      Imbedded suffering of captive cetaceans and civic politics

      Since the mayor and some park board commissioners and city councillors accept that cetaceans suffer in captivity, then they need not conduct any further studies. The city simply has to act. It has to take measures that will guarantee the eventual end to cetacean captivity for public display in Stanley Park.

      There is no need for a study of “best practices” if the study is meant to look at the “best practices for maintaining cetacean captivity”. There is no best practice.

      And if the park board aims to study the “best captive-cetacean-free business plan for the aquarium”—that is not the park board’s responsibility.

      The responsibility of a park board that understands the imbedded suffering caused by captivity is to put an end to whale captivity.

      None of the rationalizations for captivity (i.e. the need for profit to conduct the aquarium’s other activities, so-called educational values, so-called scientific research values) justify keeping sentient, intelligent social beings under inhumane circumstances.

      Vancouver aspires to become the “greenest city” in the world. But “greenest” is not just about energy efficiency and conservation, or public transit and bike lanes. It is a moral and ethical attitude toward humanity’s relationship with all of life, and exemplarily so, about our respect for other sentient beings with whom we share the planet. Cetacean captivity is a relic of the past. It must not be tolerated in the heart of a city that aims for the highest ethical standards.

      The board then needs to discuss only one item: how will the board stop the importation of any more cetaceans for public display into Stanley Park.

      The current park board, mayor, and city council must take firm, unambiguous steps toward the ending of cetacean captivity in Vancouver. The time for action is now. Deferral of action to the next park board, mayor, or city council is simply not acceptable.

      They can take immediate steps to guarantee that no more whales and dolphins are imported into the city by passing a bylaw prior to the November 2014 election banning the importation of cetaceans into Vancouver. And they can demonstrate the degree of public support for phasing out cetacean captivity by placing the question of cetacean captivity on the November ballot.

      A public poll on this highly contentious issue is long overdue. Fearing the results, the aquarium has steadfastly opposed a referendum or plebiscite. Unfortunately for the whales, successive park boards have been persuaded by the aquarium to deny the public a democratic say.

      In 1996, an NPA park board decided that should the aquarium request permission to expand in Stanley Park, a citywide referendum would be held. In 2005, the COPE park board decided that the question of phasing out cetacean captivity in Stanley Park should be put to a citywide referendum but not till 2008. Then, in 2006, the NPA park board, led by the nose by the aquarium, rescinded both of those earlier decisions. And history repeated itself in 2010, when the Vision park board, fearing a lawsuit from the aquarium, refused a motion to hold a referendum.

      Holding a plebiscite or referendum to gauge public opinion is a first step. If the public votes against captivity, then that sets a clear direction for the politicians and the aquarium.




      Apr 17, 2014 at 10:56am

      Fun fact about Jacques Cousteau: He loved the taste of sea turtles.

      He even wrote about it once as part of a larger story for National Geographic. I guess there were a lot more of them back then and not quite the same attitudes about conservation. Turtles were around so the researchers ate them.


      Apr 17, 2014 at 11:20am

      Fantastic article. Very well written and moving. I hope the people of Vancouver act accordingly and put an end to Cetacean captivity for good.

      Please publish my manifesto too

      Apr 17, 2014 at 11:31am

      So the Straight is now the official mouthpiece of No Whales in Captivity and Whalefriends? Come on, their master plan is to show the parks board and city councilors a petition that has just reached over 15K people and likely most of them aren't even residents of the City of Vancouver. They are asking for a public referendum for something that even if all signatories (as of right now) were vancouver residents would consist of a whopping 2.6% of the population (based on 2006 census - since the city has grown this means even less).

      People are too trusting

      Apr 17, 2014 at 12:01pm

      The problem with having a simple vote is that well meaning people who might actually vote are being fed misinformation by groups like these, and frankly by the Georgia Straight which is proving itself to be a one sided mouth piece for these self aggrandizing groups. They publish 'facts' about the Aquarium which are either completely false, opinion dressed up as fact or deliberate misinformation. You know what, it is difficult to prove sometimes and people have been trained to jump on the bandwagon especially with emotive articles from so called journalists using a soapbox. Want an example? Check out the Vancouver Animal Defense Leagues Facebook page as they start to drum up support from potential voters on the issue. They have crafted a photograph showing how the aquarium cares more about car park space than animal living space, the photo seems to show this (helped by their annotations in case you don't get their point). However a quick google maps search of the real image shows this to be a carefully manipulated edit.. designed to carefully manipulate the emotions of viewers. Not withstanding the fact that the carpark has nothing to do with the aquarium (owned by the city and operated by easy park) I commented on this and posted the real image asking why they felt the need to mislead people... my post and another asking a civil question by someone else about the car park being easy park's were both removed immediately before they could be seen and I was blocked from posting any more questions. Check it out or to make it easier for folks- spot the difference here:

      versus this:

      These are the tactics being used and they are dirty and misleading, if this was politics people would be disgusted. I doubt they will be foolish enough to publish something which can be checked so easily again, they prefer to fool people with less easily researched accusations. Do people still care about truth in a debate though?


      Apr 17, 2014 at 12:10pm

      Cam clearly you don't understand what commentary means. This isn't an article but rather an OP ED piece, at least according to No Whales in Captivity; but even that's a stretch; rather it seems quite clear that the editorial board of the Georgia Straight fully supports these groups.

      Marcus W

      Apr 17, 2014 at 12:28pm

      Plebiscites only work when the issue at hand is easy enough to understand, so that a simple yes/no question can be asked. That is not the case if there are in fact multiple questions to consider, of which each and every single one of them deserves careful consideration. And that applies to the issue of whales, porpoises and dolphins living at the Vancouver Aquarium.

      Plebiscites also require those asked to make a decision to be well-informed. People need to know a lot of the background in order to make an informed decision - information that the majority do not have. What we are seeing right now is not a debate - it is mostly the ramblings of some very small, but very vocal groups that attack the Aquarium because that is what they have been doing for decades. We also see concerned citizens that have watched a movie or two and are not led to believe by these groups that what they have watched on TV applies to every Aquarium in the world, without reservations.

      Should we ask No Whales in Captivity to educate the public on the individual whales, porpoises and dolphins living at the Aquarium? This organization is headed by Annelise Sorg, who has made it quite clear in her previous comments that she has a very personal problem with the Vancouver Aquarium and openly dismisses every argument coming from its supporters, simply because it does not match her very own personal opinion.

      Others are not as vocal as Annelise Sorg. But she should be aware that her black and white world view is not shared by many. In fact I have heard a wide range of opinions on the topic over the last couple of weeks on all aspects discussed in the commentary above, which only illustrates that 'Should we have whales, dolphins and porpoises at the Vancouver Aquarium' does not cover it.


      Apr 17, 2014 at 1:04pm

      About bloody time. I cried every time I was dragged to the Aquarium to see the trite whale show when I was small. How will the creatures inside survive in the wild, though? They have been captive for eons. I would go so far as to say 'disgraceful'. Thank you for one very good deed, Mayor Robertson. Been a LONG time coming.


      Apr 17, 2014 at 1:07pm

      Great article. I hope holding whales in Vancouver aquarium comes to an end once and for all.

      patricia tallman

      Apr 17, 2014 at 1:11pm

      get into the 21st century and free all who are held captives as slaves for entertainment, food, clothing, etc. humans never had the right.

      Denzil Nair

      Apr 17, 2014 at 1:19pm

      There is always someone that comments after an article like the above and calls it misinformation. But they never refute any of the points specifically. Are you refuting the fact that whales suffer in captivity? That showing whales in tanks is not really educating children?
      The only people that would see nothing wrong with this are the people profiting from this in some way or the other. If not and you feel so strongly about your point of view, I will be protesting at the Vancouver Aquarium on Sunday. Come up to me and we'll have a discussion and at the end hopefully we both will be better educated.
      You can tell me all the reasons why whales and dolphins should continue to be kept at the Vancouver aquarium and in aquariums around the world.