Seals and penguins deserve to be liberated from Vancouver Aquarium, prof says

Activist argues push to end captivity of whales and dolphins is more likely to succeed

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      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.”

      The Vancouver Aquarium has two belugas at its Stanley Park facility, with another three on loan to SeaWorld.
      Stephen Hui

      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.

      Mayor Gregor Robertson wants to see the Vancouver Aquarium phase out its keeping of whales and dolphins.
      Stephen Hui

      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.”

      Law professor Gary Francione says anticaptivity campaigns should seek the liberation of all sentient animals.
      Courtesy Gary Francione

      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.”




      Apr 23, 2014 at 10:36am

      Interesting. Not that far removed from this position, would be the theoretical possibility of granting equal rights to all sentient animals in the physical world, and similarly to those in the virtual world. Not my personal position of course, not being strictly a mere materialist, but what about the neural mapping currently being performed? What if a highly-detailed neural map were to be activated within a virtual machine? What kind of rights do the non-physical copies of animals and humans have then? Property rights? Would such a map be a "real" copy, an independent entity in its own right? Would your dear aunt have voting rights and a bank account, virtualized after physical existence ended? It is said that the future is virtual. I disagree, but the spiritually blind materialists will go right on ahead; good luck with all that. Most of the "mind" or identity is non-physical to begin with, but that's just my opinion. Good article. More like it, please.


      Apr 23, 2014 at 10:48am

      Animal Rights activists: the left's equivalent of the anti-abortion movement.

      Jim Jones

      Apr 23, 2014 at 11:32am

      Interesting to note that VADL and Sea Shepard Vancouver's (which mind you is very different than the global organization) approach to a public debate involves censure, misinformation and acts of trespass. Aren't at least two of these things considered a cardinal sin by people in the world of journalism? Stephen it is clear from the three paragraphs of this article you devote to the status of the aquarium's private property that you have no idea what a lease or the word trespass entails - but great attempt at creating something out of nothing.

      A debate and if it comes to it a public referendum should be based in fact not emotion. If going on to the youtube link in the article you can clearly see that one side of this debate is willing to use facts while the other is content with using emotion to affirm their own beliefs.

      I have no problem with an open public debate but calling this a "debate" is about as good as a joke as yesterday's announcement that Humpbacks are no longer endangered.

      Smells Fishy

      Apr 23, 2014 at 11:56am

      VADL has so far refused to answer my questions as to why anyone should believe a word of what they say when they drum up public support for their anti-aquarium campaign with misleading images shared around the internet, in fact they deleted my question (and those of others who politely pointed out inconsistencies with their accusations) and then blocked me from commenting, nice censorship of the discussion :-). Everyone needs to take the claims of these organizations with a very large pinch of salt. Example? Check out their poster campaign and an image easily checked with Google Maps not that anybody bothers to fact check anymore these days.

      fish luver

      Apr 23, 2014 at 12:16pm

      How bout fish tanks? Free the fish!


      Apr 23, 2014 at 12:19pm

      Smells Fishy....maybe next time they should compare the size of those pools to the ocean just metres away. That would be a more accurate comparison.


      Apr 23, 2014 at 12:49pm

      We have to start somewhere, total liberation is ideal but not realistic right now.

      Marcus Wernicke

      Apr 23, 2014 at 1:05pm

      "The aquarium is turning people into conservationists" - I believe that to be true. It worked and had a profound effect on me when I first visited the Aquarium in 2002.

      People that come to the Aquarium must really be blind and deaf in order to leave after their visit without awareness for at least some of the conservation issues that threaten those animals in their natural habitats - and that is indeed a good thing.

      I am a conservationist - and I advocate for cetaceans and other marine mammals, though I prefer to highlight what really threatens them, and that is not captivity. 300,000 whales, porpoises and dolphins are estimated by Greenpeace and WDC to get entangled and drown in fixed fishing nets every year. Add to that an estimate of another 300,000 pinnipeds that share this fate. With just over 2,000 cetaceans in captivity, that would equate to our killing the entire captive population of whales, porpoises and dolphins every three days - in the wild, with fishing nets. (Why is that not an issue to animal rights activists in Vancouver?)

      My interest in our oceans was sparked during my first visit to the Vancouver Aquarium all those years ago - and back then I lived on another continent, and a three hour drive from the next shoreline. I still learn something new every time I spend time at the Aquarium, and these days I get to share my knowledge as a volunteer. I talk to people who have never seen (or even heard of) a harbour porpoise and introduce them to Jack and Daisy - and to the fact that these animals, while abundant in our waters, are critically endangered in some of their range - and visitors like them can make a difference without much effort. Rescue stories inspire people to desire change - and the Aquarium gives a home to rescued and rehabilitated dolphins, harbour porpoises, sea otters - and even a graceful sea turtle. They all help me raise awareness and engage people that otherwise would be oblivious to issues that affect these animals in their natural habitats.

      It is those rescued and rehabilitated animals I am most concerned about - and future arrivals - when following the current debate. Some just cannot be released (in many cases that would be deadly experiments), sea pens are not a viable option (too expensive, requirements exactly the same as for closed tanks) - and to send them all off to the US, future rescues as well?

      Smells Fishy

      Apr 23, 2014 at 1:29pm

      @ Tyler - At least that would have honest. The problem is this organization and others like it are so intent on 'activism' that they are happy to twist facts or outright lie to make their point. This gets spread around via social media sites like wildfire whipping up an emotional response in people against something which isn't even true.. and then they push for a referendum which they will campaign for in the same manner. I'm not saying the subject is not worthy of debate, far from it I am far from pro-captivity, though I have softened my stance a lot having worked extensively for much of the last decade with rescued/rehabbed animals (not cetaceans but primates and other victims of the hunting/fur trade) and having seen first hand the complications and difficulties involved in releases etc. and the quality of life that can be given to animals even if not in 'ideal' circumstances. I wasn't in favour of the Aquarium's projects either until I took the time to actually learn about them for myself. Their policies and programs are some of the best I have seen, sure you are never going to change the beliefs of those who think all animals should be free, but the knee jerk reaction that is being cultivated in the public is simply wrong. The tactics are unethical and are undermining the work of one of the best and most effective conservation groups operating in the region. People assume an awful lot without checking facts and swallow whatever is presented in the most dramatic fashion. I don't know if the activists are still claiming that the dolphins are from drive fisheries rather than victims of accidental entanglement but until recently they were, & using The Cove as a spur to demonize the aquarium. Other than the fact that they has to meet the highest standards which are regulated, and is not allowed to source from drive fisheries, you have to ask yourself that if the Japanese hunters were going to select some of the dolphins to sell rather than slaughter would they really choose to keep the ones with horrifically injured fins? Here's the thing with rescued animals too, once they have been in care for a period of time they lose their natural fear and will seek out more human contact for whatever reason, dangerous for us if it's a large cat but dangerous for the dolphin if it's approaching boats and propellers(check the story of Luna).I prefer facts over slogans.

      Dave Shishkoff

      Apr 23, 2014 at 1:36pm

      Oddly i find myself disagreeing with both activists. I think helping the animals we can is productive, and not speciesist. Especially to those already in captivity, and those who may potentially be captured for this purpose. (The animals at the Vancouver Aquarium ought to be sent to appropriate sanctuaries.)

      To follow Francione's argument, it'd be like freeing some slaves, but not all in this case. Does that mean this effort to free slaves is racist, or should be abandoned until all can be freed? Are campaigns against child cruelty 'ageist', and empowerment of women 'sexist' and to be ended as well? This thinking is defeatist and leaves out many forms of productive and effective activism.

      Daviduk claiming that it's not realistic - any time this kind of attitude is perpetuated, it only hinders progress. It was no less 'realistic' yesterday, and will be no more 'realistic' tomorrow. Animals deserve lives free from captivity at all times. It's realistic to believe animals deserve better, and to continue pushing for it.

      What to do with the aquarium? Shut down the displays, and expand the rehabilitation which is admirable and a sign of a progressive society - helping those in need. Or turn it into a sanctuary (which doesn't display animals.) The opposite of this is keeping them in captivity and on display for gawking humans. This clearly has to end.

      Dave Shishkoff, Editor
      The Victoria Vegan