Here’s the video of our conversation with the Vancouver Aquarium Sea Turtle
The Vancouver Aquarium has been under heavy public scrutiny and criticism for their beluga breeding program. I decided I wanted to go and see them for myself before solidifying my own opinion.
As you can see in the video below, the focus of the demonstration was not on entertaining the people, but education. We learned why these “tricks” were trained and how it was important to the whales’ daily care.
Certainly, these belugas are not being used and abused in the way the orcas and dolphins at Sea World and Marine Land are being exploited. Comparatively, these whales are lucky.
For a half hour before this demonstration, Sweetie and I sat topside beside the aquarium and I talked to the leader. There were two belugas, one was hanging out in the shallow “treatment pond”, and the leader was pacing the enclosure. I didn’t know anything about the relationship between the two whales or their gender, so I started out addressing the pacing “leader”.
She immediately made it clear she was the Mother, the other whale was “My Baby”. She didn’t want people to look at her baby just now, so she had sent the baby into the treatment pond while she paced her enclosure restlessly.
Her behaviour pattern reminded me of the porcupine at Science North. He was also restlessly pacing his enclosure in anticipation of the demonstration, a time they’re conditioned to look forward to because that’s when they get treats.
But the energy of this pacing behaviour isn’t excited, it’s itchy and restless.
I asked the Mother about her time in the aquarium.
She told me she’d arrived when she was very young, and had been happy with two other companions before they were moved. She wondered what happened to them. She had been artificially inseminated and become pregnant, and had her Baby. The way the Mother was talking about this, I would have thought the Baby was only three years old.
The Mother told me how everything had changed for her after she had her baby. Her body had become restless. She had all these instincts about how to raise her Baby, all these things she should be teaching her Baby, all this migrating and feeding they should be doing. She couldn’t do any of it, and she never stopped thinking about it. In her mind she showed me an image of hundreds of belugas all together in a large channel.
Days later, Sweetie showed me this photo:
Animals (and people) are born with bodies that are programmed for survival. The Mother’s body wants to be migrating, foraging and associating with hundreds of others of her species. She wants to be looking after her Baby in the company of other Mothers, and protectively teaching her Baby all she needs to know to survive.
These instincts unlocked in her body after she became pregnant. She’s felt restless ever since.
A friend of mine said to me, “If the Belugas at the Vancouver Aquarium had a consciousness, and you could explain to them that they’re hunted in the wild, I think they’d opt to stay where they are.”
I really like and respect this guy, so I changed the subject instead of saying “That’s the most ignorant thing I’ve heard in a while.”
Maybe there are belugas out there who would make that choice. But humans have no business projecting their own sense of entitlement on to other species.
After hanging out with the Belugas for a half hour, the demonstration began: (It’s okay, safe to watch.)
It’s apparent that the Aquarium is doing damage control for all the critics of the captive beluga breeding program. Fortunately, these animals are not exploited to the extent their relatives are in entertainment parks, but you know what? I wouldn’t call this a good life.
Their enclosures are alarmingly small. For animals that are designed to migrate hundreds of thousands of miles, they’re confined to a pool that looks to be about the size of the YMCA facility where I learned how to swim.
The research program justifies the breeding and captivity of their belugas as a “control group” to compare the condition of the captive belugas to those in the wild.
To me, this is poor justification. The life these belugas have at the Vancouver Aquarium isn’t even close to the life their bodies were designed to live. If a human child was confined to a space that size for his or her lifetime, our culture would call it abusive. Thanks to the stories coming from survivors of long term solitary confinement, humans are now starting to consider long-term solitary confinement a form or torture.
Political prisoners kept in solitary for a year or longer have described the experience as deadening to the soul. They would go days without human contact, weeks talking to no one but their cell mate, or another prisoner down the hall. They describe how their minds would slow down, how they’d learn to sit in complete blankness for hours.
In the video, the announcer talks about the “incredible relationship” the whales have with their trainers. Under these conditions, mammals will bond with whoever cares for them, even people develop bonds with their captors.
The Vancouver Aquarium does do some amazing work. I really enjoyed my visit, and I do encourage you to go visit too. But I also encourage you to tell them you hope they stop the captive breeding program.
It is a tricky ethical line that they walk. The Vancouver Aquarium is one of the only facilities that will rescue marine wildlife in distress. They have a blind sea otter, and two pacific white-sided dolphins who were in great spirits while we visited. They also had a female stellar sea lion who was howling at people in a territorial manner, and didn’t seem particularly relaxed in her environment. They also have a strange and tiny exhibit of penguins.
Animals like the dolphins, the sea lion, the otters and the sea turtle would not be alive if not for the Vancouver Aquarium. They do a LOT of rescue – rehab – release work, which is FANTASTIC. Just that work alone makes me want to run a fundraiser for them. But the rescued animals who can’t be released seem to be confined to alarmingly small enclosures. I’d like to see all of the pools opened up and joined into one large enclosure for only the dolphins (rescued as babies and not releasable.)
It’s a tough call. I really loved the indoor aquariums. The sea turtle is in good shape, but would like a friend.
What would you like to see the Vancouver Aquarium do? What do you think is realistic, humane and ethical?