The ethics of VanAqua and cetacean captivity
By Cazzy Lewchuk, Opinions Editor
Recently, the Vancouver Aquarium said goodbye to the last of its beloved belugas, just weeks after losing another. The cause of death remains unknown, although a virus or toxin is the likely culprit. From inspiring Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” song to being a sort of unofficial mascot, the Belugas were a staple of the aquarium.
With the release of “Blackfish” and other related facts coming to light, many have questioned the ethics of keeping cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in captivity. These creatures are some of the most intelligent animals in the world, and live naturally in a vast ocean environment. Keeping them in tanks is akin to imprisoning a human in a small room, while others tap on the glass and watch them do tricks for pieces of fish.
I agree with the sentiment. Keeping these intelligent beings in captivity for human entertainment is wrong. At the Vancouver Aquarium, however, the truth is more complicated. VanAqua is a world-class aquatic facility that contributes a lot to marine biology research and conservation. They do not capture cetaceans from the wild; all of their whale/dolphin residents are bred in captivity or rescued from unsafe circumstances, or are unfit to live in the wild. In many cases, these animals can be euthanized because there are no facilities available to take care of them.
The breeding program remains controversial, with many feeling cetaceans spending their entire lives in a tank is an unethical way to treat such an intelligent creature. However, studying the breeding habits can lead to better knowledge about their natural behaviour. It is hard to study these animals in the wild, and access to captive specimens can open up many new discoveries. The animals are treated well, and their lifespans in captivity are the same or even longer than they would be in the wild. Of course, tragic deaths do happen, but this is not a normal occurrence. I would bet money that the deaths are not due to any fault in the aquarium, but were unavoidable causes (possibly even some sicko who wanted to kill these cetaceans deliberately).
Many of those who oppose the Vancouver Aquarium’s cetacean keeping know little about the positive scientific endeavours the programs lead. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but it’s what we have, and I believe the positives outweigh the negatives. Studying rescue animals in captivity leads to new discoveries, not only about marine biology, but oceanography and climate studies as well. The cetaceans are also a source of revenue as an attraction: VanAqua is a non-profit facility that uses funds for environmental and scientific causes.
Capturing whales in the wild for aquarium use is wrong, and we’ve known that since Free Willy. Keeping cetaceans in tanks isn’t pleasant, but it’s sometimes the only course of action. Many animal-rights activists think that keeping any creature in captivity for any reason is wrong. I don’t subscribe to this philosophy, although I can respect the mindset behind it. I condemn organizations like Sea World that keep orcas as profit-generators, but that is very different from the Vancouver Aquarium using rescue belugas for research.