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Captive cetaceans – good or bad?

Beluga whales, Vancouver AquariumThe Vancouver Aquarium has an image problem right now. Vision Vancouver park board (that is part of the city council of Vancouver) is leading a charge to rid the aquarium of all cetaceans – that would be whales and dolphins to you and me. There is no doubt the timing is politically driven – the aquarium is about to do a CAN$100 million expansion of the aquarium to give the cetaceans more space. And a Vancouver Vision Park Board Commissioner has decided to not run next year. And the city’s by-law on cetaceans in captivity is also up for review next year…

The environmentalists jumped all over this (surprised?) – saying big brain creatures should not be held in captivity. Which having just been watching Zefrank’s little vignette’s on Youtube, did make me wonder why they aren’t all over the release of octopi as well? But I digress.

Vancouver aquarium has now fired back, creating a video about cetaceans in their care. They currently only have 2 dolphins and 2 beluga’s (in part because of the aforementioned pending renovations).  Some might say for such highly social creatures – the Vancouver Aquarium having so few cetaceans right now is cruel (that is not being said in the press… That was just me!). Their website makes it very clear that they do not harvest cetaceans from the wild, and have not done so since 1996. Everyone learns from their mistakes.

Their last orca was moved from the Vancouver Aquarium in 2001 to San Diego (not a happy ending) when it no longer had any buddies.

And opponents will say the Vancouver Aquarium has a terrible history with cetaceans at the aquarium.

Is it a black and white situation?!

Empathising with the cetaceans

I am perfectly capable of wondering how dreadful it would be if some alien kidnapped me and dropped me in a cage I could walk around in 5 minutes. I’d be super upset because where’s my TV? Computer? Fellow humans to talk to and interact with? Books to read? Movies to watch? Worse, what if they dropped in someone I didn’t particularly like?? I couldn’t think of anything worse than sharing my living space with someone I despised!

I also wonder if I would miss all of these if I had been left for dead by my own race? What if the aliens healed me and then I was better? Would I want to go back when I was better or would I feel resentful that my own kind had abandoned me? Might I strive instead to try and communicate with the alien’s

Or would I miss all of these things if I didn’t know they existed?

What if I had been born and raised in an alien exhibit? What if I’d never known anything but the environment around me, the toys they gave me to play with, being under constant observation by some who did not look like me? How would I fare if one day, after a lifetime of ignorance, I was taken out of my cage, away from the only beings I know and thrown out into a large area filled with savages who look like me but don’t think like me,  and have to fend for myself again? Would I, a big-brained, social creature, suddenly feel utterly, utterly abandoned by those who had cared for me and try to seek them out, to try and understand why they had abandoned me? I suspect it would  be a long adjustment to the rejection, and I may never adjust!

I guess I’m trying to empathise with the whales here. Or do the things many animal scientists are not so fond of – anthropomorphize But it IS important to do so because for all the desire to have no more cetaceans in aquariums around the world, rehabilitating cetaceans back in the wild has been a disaster – and these are cetaceans that have been captured and freed again as well as ones who never knew anything but captivity.

Success in the wild?

The movie “Free Willy” was about an orca being set free. Most should know that it was based on a real whale – Keiko. It cost millions of dollars to slowly and gradually rehabilitate Keiko – the funding nearly dried up on several occasions. And then, 9 years after the campaign to free him began, he died in a Norwegian fjord, still surrounded by humans caring for him….

Atlantis, a marine park in Perth, Western Australia, closed in 1990 and released several dolphins back into the wild. Not all were able to adapt, and 3 were later re-captured and put back in captivity. There were stories for years of these dolphins approaching people on the beach.

To not be biased, read the success story for Springer… But again, very costly!

Luna was an orca that was abandoned by its mother of the coast of Vancouver Island. It lived a tumultuous, short life in Nootka Sound. Luna was free, as in not in a cage, and Luna liked people. However, not all the people liked Luna… Even those who wanted nothing but the best for the whale were conflicted in their handling. And yet, as the documentary, Saving Luna, makes clear – Luna always, actively, sought out people, even after many had abandoned the whale.

It just so happens, after hanging out with human’s, some of these whales develop a fondness for us. Little known fact – beluga’s love their tongue being rubbed by humans – how many other beluga’s do you think can do that to eachother? But then, other whales may loath human contact, such as Tilikum, the subject of the film. Blackfish, appears to. And why not? If they are ‘big-brained creatures’ and highly social ones at that, then just look at the breadth and depth of personalities in the human race  – why shouldn’t that also exist in cetaceans? Some humans prefer dogs, or dolls, or cats, or horses over human company (not talking twisted here!). Why shouldn’t some cetaceans prefer human company? And others not?!

So should there be cetaceans in captivity?

I don’t think there is a black and white answer to this. There are some enormous benefits to being able to see a cetacean up close in an aquarium:

  • It is a guaranteed, reliable, reasonably affordable way to introduce the general public to whales and dolphins (as opposed to the hit and miss cost and chance of going out on a whale watching tour)
  • Seeing a cetacean up close is a way to educate the public about whale issues
  • Seeing a cetacean up close allows people to relate/empathize more with a whale, which can result in increased research funding
  • Research on captive cetaceans can be fed back into assisting those in the wild
  • They tend to live longer in captivity (if not mistreated, and it would be hard to argue that Vancouver mistreats their cetaceans other than the loudest argument, they are not free).

If there were no zoos and no aquarium’s, I doubt there would be quite so many various acts around the world to prevent man-induced extinctions of animal species, and the animals would be going extinct without many humans caring at all. The only people up in arms about polar bears going extinct (or reverting back to being grizzly bears) would be the locals loosing their food source. Panda bears would have disappeared by now if they weren’t bring in so much press and tourist money for the Chinese (and WWF). By seeing these animals up close, we develop a bond with them that reading about them, seeing them a kilometer away from a boat or a bus just doesn’t provide.

After all, how many care that banana’s are on the verge of extinction because human’s have reduced them to a seedless shadow of their previous selves and now they are vulnerable to a fungus of extinction proportions? Where are the activists protesting our modification of banana’s and insisting we let banana’s return to what they were before we began cultivating them? Ok, it’s only the Cavendish banana at stake here, and sure, it’s a banana you say and really, how worked up can you get over such a crisis when they are in every supermarket and corner store? But the point is – we don’t relate to a banana. Even though we eat it. Prolifically. And as long as they keep appearing on supermarket shelves, we aren’t really getting too worked up. Even though a banana is pretty much unable to reproduce in the wild now (got a banana seed? You can sell it for $1000’s…) and under attack by a fungus. And what happens if the Cavendish banana ceases to exist? Will environmentalists get up in arms that the Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4) fungus has lost its major food supply and might DIE out???

Ok, so maybe the banana’s and fungi aren’t a good example – other than it demonstrates how unsympathetic human’s can be to a living thing, if we can’t relate to it… Or are deemed bad – by us.

But again, I digress.

On the other hand, I am not at all fond of the idea that all cetaceans are necessarily in a bad way in captivity. Certainly, I don’t want things to get to the point where cetaceans are being bred just for aquariums! On the other hand, hang on,  do we not breed cows? sheep? dogs? cats? chickens… just as the  protestors against Sea World are saying the aquarium is doing with cetaceans? Ok. So where is the line drawn? As long as aquariums aren’t breeding cetaceans like puppy mills??? But the chicken farms… the prized stallions having the indignity of their sperm captured before they can make sweet lurve to a female horse. Now I’m confused… Cetaceans being bred – bad, sheep being bred, good? There is definitely asymmetry in the stop human-interfered animal breeding movement! (Yes, I know there are people upset at dog breeding etc – but they don’t get the same publicity and funding as anti-cetacean breeding!).

I do wonder if there is any merit to returning a cetacean to the wild, especially if they have never known the wild. More money seems to be devoted to freeing cetaceans than the many millions required to rehabilitate them when they are released because it takes years – years and years and years. . With very little chance of success.

In the case of Luna, who was abandoned by her mother,  it seemed to me she liked being around humans. She actually was free but chose to be with humans  – we should respect the animals choice. Maybe we should respect and nurture bonds like that with cetaceans. The one thing that always seems to happen in these situations is no one asks the whale what they want – would you like to stay in touch, or do you want to just vanish into the oceanic depths, alone, unsure, and vulnerable to predators?

 Part II – Captive Cetaceans – Setting them Free >>

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