Canada does a poor job at protecting animals in captivity, say activists

New legislation asserts that for some animals, including whales and dolphins, captivity itself is cruel.

New legislation asserts that for some animals, including whales and dolphins, captivity itself is cruel

A hand touches the snout of open-mouth bottlenose dolphin floating at the edge of a pool.
New legislation asserts that for some animals, including whales and dolphins, captivity itself is cruel. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

At first it was heartwarming, then it seemed heartbreaking. The Last Walrus is a personal story about the inspiring bond between a man and a captive animal — and later, his attempt to save her. But it's also a political one.

The new documentary from The Nature of Things delves into the world of the social, intelligent animals we have captured and bred to entertain us. Supporters say these captive animals provide education and research, while opponents say it's unethical and cruel.

Who speaks for the living, feeling beings that cannot speak for themselves? Canada needs a much stronger voice, animal welfare experts say.


A 'detrimental' patchwork of legislation

In 2020, World Animal Protection, a non-profit organization upholding animal welfare, gave Canada a grade of D for policy and regulation to safeguard animals. When specific to animals in captivity, that rating drops to an E. 

Camille Labchuk, animal rights lawyer and executive director at Animal Justice, says she would also give Canada a near-failing grade.

"I think we're doing quite poorly," she says. "Canada doesn't have any national legislation to protect animals in zoos and aquariums or other captive entertainment situations, which is unfortunate because that means provinces are left to make up their own rules. And what we've ended up with is a serious patchwork that's quite detrimental, I think, to the well-being of these animals."

Zoos and aquariums are at least publicly visible, but the untold story is privately held wild animals. World Animal Protection estimated there were roughly 1.4 million exotic animals kept as pets in Canada in 2019.

A look back at marine mammals in captivity: The Last Walrus

3 years ago
Duration 1:29
Meet Phile Demers and Smooshie and take a look back at walrus in captivity.

Labchuk says the country's most populous province, Ontario, is the worst at protecting animals. Only two animals are banned at the provincial level — pit bulls and orca whales — and there is no requirement to license or register a captive animal either, she says.

"I can't build a patio in my backyard without getting a permit," Labchuk says. "But I could open a zoo and fill it with dangerous exotic animals — and the government would have nothing to say about that."

Other provinces set higher standards. World Animal Protection notes, "British Columbia and Alberta have the most comprehensive zoo standards." Federally, however, anti-cruelty legislation dates all the way back to 1892, with only minor revisions in the 1950s — that is, until a legislative victory in 2019. 

The so-called Free Willy bill basically asserted that high standards for zoos are irrelevant. For some species, captivity itself is cruel. 

Captive whales, dolphins and porpoises banned 

The Last Walrus is filmmaker Nathalie Bibeau's look at the shift in the public's view on animal captivity. One story she follows is that of Phil Demers, a former employee of Ontario's Marineland, as he and others advocate for Bill S-203.  

Demers's unique bond with Smooshi the walrus made heartwarming headlines and late-night shows before he left his job to advocate for the well-being of Marineland's animals. 

When former senator Murray Sinclair first arrived in the Senate in 2016, Bill S-203 had already been introduced. He immediately joined the effort, reaching out to staffers and senators, and building a coalition. 

"I really believe that holding animals in captivity is just contrary to our obligations, as human beings, to the rest of creation," he says of his interest in the cause. 

Another reason? Sinclair's five daughters confronted him. "They all came to me and said, 'Dad, [you've] got to do something about this,'" he says.

The bill stalled for years before finally passing in 2019, officially banning whales and dolphins in captivity, but allowed exemptions for animals already captive in parks, for rehabilitation or research, or in the animal's best interest.

It was hailed as a major victory by supporters. NDP MP Gord Johns called it "the most important piece of animal rights legislation that has been passed in Canadian history."

The Jane Goodall Act: Banning captivity of great apes and elephants

Fresh from victory, then senator Sinclair returned with another bill last November: S-218, the Jane Goodall Act, which aims to phase out the captivity of great apes, elephants and other non-domesticated animals for entertainment. Sinclair retired from the Senate in January 2021, but Senator Marty Klyne will continue sponsorship of the bill.

Canadians, Sinclair says, were ready for these federal laws protecting animals.

"I think it's all part of the overall sense of responsibility for the environment, and that's a growing topic in the Canadian community generally," he says. "And I think it's a really important topic for young people because of what they've read and they've heard. The work of activists like Greta Thunberg — the influence that they have just on convincing young people that they have to get involved."

Labchuk says polls have shown a shift in the past decade or so. Many Canadians are uncomfortable with keeping animals captive for entertainment.

"We think of ourselves as kind and compassionate as a country," Labchuk says. "And we think our laws [are] supposed to reflect those values." She believes change is inevitable.

What will the future of zoos and aquariums look like?

A number of the country's institutions are certified by Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, a charitable organization that recognizes those that uphold high standards of animal care. However, this is an opt-in program, and the power to grant or remove operating licences remains in the hands of governments and the law. 

Both Sinclair and Labchuk see zoos likely evolving into a sanctuary model, caring for animals that are injured or unable to live in the wild. Sinclair says he also supports zoos as research institutions or purposed for conservation.

What about zoos and aquariums as fun activities for a family, or learning opportunities for children? Sinclair says animals in small enclosures are anything but fun or educational. He says the new laws acknowledge the lived experience of captive animals.

Watch The Last Walrus on The Nature of Things. 

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