A beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium in 2002 (Photo: Don MacKinnon/Getty Images)
In 1996, the Vancouver Aquarium decided to end the practice of keeping cetaceans — whales, dolphins and belugas — that were caught in the wild. Now Dr. Jane Goodall is calling on the institution and the Vancouver Park Board to phase out cetacean captivity and breeding entirely.
This is demonstrated by the high mortality rates evident in these breeding programs and by the ongoing use of these animals in interactive shows as entertainment. The idea that certain cetaceans “do better” in captivity than others is also misleading, as belugas, dolphins and porpoises are highly social animals which can travel in large pods and migrate long distances. In captivity, these highly vocal and complex communicators are forced to live in a low-sensory environment, which is unable to fully meet the needs of their physical and emotional worlds.
Andria Teather, CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, told Strombo.com that the letter comes from Dr. Goodall's belief that "when possible, it's best for animals to live in their natural environments." Teather was also careful to point out that it was a "statement issued by our founder," and not part of a campaign by the Institute, which supports research, education and conservation.
"She worked in Africa with a species that was very intelligent, had really close social bonds, and thrived in the natural forest," Teather said, referring to Dr. Goodall's pioneering chimpanzee research. "So this is kind of where she's evolved to. This doesn't just apply to chimpanzees. We're talking about species that think, feel, care."
Dr. Goodall's letter joins ongoing calls to phase out the Aquarium's marine mammal exhibits. Over the weekend, protesters gathered at rallies around the world for Empty The Tanks, a campaign to end the captivity of marine mammals. One of the protesters outside the Vancouver Aquarium told CTV News, "The educational value of watching whales and dolphins in a concrete tank is about the same as watching human beings in solitary confinement." The 2013 documentary Blackfish has also drawn attention to the condition of marine mammals in captivity.
In a statement, animal operations VP Clint Wright said the Vancouver Aquarium has "the greatest respect" for Dr. Goodall, but argued her information "may be incomplete." He said that beluga whales live "as long, if not longer" in human care, and that "cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium are content and thriving." He went on to invite Dr. Goodall visit the Aquarium to see the care cetaceans receive for herself.
"She would also see that the Vancouver Aquarium’s interpretative shows enable us to engage the public in better awareness and understanding of the critical issues facing our oceans and the life within them," said Wright. "The experience we gain working with cetaceans in our care is what enables us to rescue stranded animals and assist in research directly applied to saving wild populations."
The Vancouver Aquarium is in the midst of a $100-million expansion which would see larger tanks for its whales and dolphins.