The Vancouver Aquarium provides you with the opportunity to discover nifty creatures from all over the globe that you’d normally never see from the dry land of Stanley Park. You can find everything from lion fish to colourful parrots to monkeys. But soon, there won’t be any reason to go there looking for whales.
Recently, Vancouver’s park board voted to disallow cetaceans (whales, dolphins, belugas, and more) from being held in captivity. Though the keeping of whales in Vancouver aquariums has been a long-standing debate, the final decision was made after two of the aquarium’s belugas died from unknown causes.
I say this was the right decision; holding whales and dolphins in captivity is inhumane. They’re very intelligent creatures who naturally live in complex social structures, which means they have needs that can’t be fulfilled when living in a glorified fish bowl.
Common sense would dictate that animals in captivity would live longer, not having to compete for food or worry about being some predator’s lunch. However, there’s evidence that whales living in captivity have more health and behavioural problems than wild ones. Living in captivity is harmful to the aquarium’s belugas, so why continue to put generations of these animals through it?
This issue doesn’t just affect the aquarium’s ability to compile a cetacean collection. The aquarium has a marine mammal rescue centre that releases many animals back into the wild after treating them. The ban on keeping whales in captivity could affect the centre’s ability to treat our finned friends.
This is important work and allows us to positively affect the environment that we are often damaging. The fine print of this decision, which won’t be settled upon until later in the year by the park board, should be devised in a way that allows for the centre to continue to rehabilitate and release animals.
Of course, some of the marine mammals the aquarium has in captivity aren’t capable of returning to the wild, as they’ve been raised without the knowledge of how to fend for themselves by hunting and avoiding predators, and of how to coexist with their free counterparts socially. We can’t just release them Free Willy style.
Forcing animals that are unprepared for the wild to jump into the deep end would mean cruelly sentencing them to a life worse and shorter than a life in captivity. It’s not exactly feasible to build a tank large enough to allow for beluga migration patterns. The best we can do is let these animals live out their lives at the aquarium, and end the cycle of unhappy captive animals with that.
Marine mammals are fascinating creatures, and we should continue trying to help them succeed in their natural environment. But what good is a place that educates us about these creatures if it also harms the ones in its care?