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?
7 thoughts on “The Vancouver Aquarium”
wow, this is very thoughtful and thought-provoking. VA’s rescue, rehab and release work is fantastic and gives me hope that not all zoos and indoor aquariums are, well, prisons. since you asked, i’ll go ahead and say it: i would like to see them hire you and/or other animal communicators. if “set them all free” is not a viable answer, why not do what one can to ensure good quality of life, companionship, and general happiness in captivity? get the info from the turtle’s mouth, so to speak. honor life. practice humanity. exercise compassion and kindness. allocate funds to quality of life improvements. be a leader in progressive animal care and actively hold yourselves (and other animal entertainment facilities) to higher standards.
i really hope someone with power at the VA reads your post and at the very least gets turtle a buddy.
LOL! Thank you for saying so, AD 🙂 If they were going to get an animal communicator in, I would be the ideal one because I’m probably the only one not advocating for their release into the wild. I think they should run a big-ass fundraiser to expand the habitat of the resident belugas, and have more of the training time be about “enrichment”. Create exercises that mimic more foraging for food, more problem solving. Introduce beluga sound waves.
You know what would be really cool? Record belugas in the wild and play it for the captive ones, and refresh the recordings regularly (don’t just play the same ones.) Give them a beluga radio. Belugas like to use clicks and squeaks, and I think they do something else to communicate over long distance.
I could be so nice to see them in a decent habitat, but it would be crazy-expensive, so it has to be sustainable. But yeah, stop breeding. She was bred 19 years ago, hopefully they won’t do it again. I wish they’d release a statement saying so.
While they’re at it, I think those sea otters need a larger habitat with more vegetation, and things to wrap around themselves.
I think the Ucluelet Aquarium is the “zoo” of the future. They borrow fish from the ocean in the summer and return them to the wild in the fall. They rotate the wild pacific octopus every couple of months – they feed it live crabs so it keeps up it’s skillset while in captivity, and they return it to the place they caught it.
There is huge educational value in zoos and aquariums… I just feel like we’re moving too slowly, still getting out of the dark ages.
oh, give them a switch so they can turn the beluga radio on and off at will, then train them to use it. that would be a cool experiment.
uhh, yeah, you ARE the right person for this job. we should start a petition; you have so many great ideas!!!!!! your response brought big smiles to my face; those animals would be so HAPPY! kudos to the ucluelet aquarium for committing to respect, awareness, sustainability, humane practices.
seriously, is anyone from the vancouver aquarium reading this? (i know they saw at least one of your post on twitter). you’d be perfect. and it’d be so “2014” for an aquarium to have an animal communicator on staff!
Yeah, I think once animal / telepathic communication / remote viewing becomes mainstream, that’s where we’ll be headed.
We’ve had military remote viewers in us / canada / European intelligence agencies since the 60s for heaven’s sake.
There is still such a divide between science and intuition, despite the greats having talked about the importance of both.
The problem is scientists risk losing credibility when they openly associate themselves with this sort of thing. It’s a problem with new ideas in all sorts of scientific fields – if you’re not already building on and agreeing with the status quo, your shit doesn’t get published, you don’t get grants, teaching or research positions.
The turtle said there was a study group of animal communicators who visit him regularly. I wonder how those folks interact with the staff.
I was aware that I was making some staff uncomfortable even as I was speaking under my breath. And I couldn’t really hide my shock at how small the mammal habitats were.
Here’s a link to an article on the Vancouver Aquarium’s own blog about the great work they do: http://www.aquablog.ca/2014/07/open-letter-on-cetaceans-from-dr-terrie-m-williams/
I want to repeat that I support the VA in the vast majority of the work they do… but I have to draw attention to the small things that reflect big attitude shifts I’d love to see in the coming years.
When Dr. Williams refers to the animals “voluntary participation” in the research programs, she’s talking about the conditioned behaviours instilled in the long-term residents like the belugas. The whales have been trained to present flukes for blood samples, accept ultrasounds, wear heart monitors etc.
I wish all lab animals had a life this good.
The VA is truly a gem in the research field. It’s just… not enough to justify confining animals in a small facility their whole lives, where they have little opportunity to express their instinctual behaviours. This is a quality of life issue.
You know you’re dealing with good scientists when you’re talking about quality of life vs. inhumane treatment.
I really don’t want us to stop at “free from suffering” when we talk about captive animals. Isolation and confinement standards have plenty of room to grow, so let’s encourage them to do so. I want to talk about enrichment, providing opportunities for the animals to exercise natural behaviours that echo the activities of their wild relatives.
right, right. credibility. ::sigh:: i sometimes forget that my interests aren’t “normal.”
what a poignant, yet beautiful letter dr. williams wrote (and how great that you can send the letter to elected officials or download a copy directly from this page)!
as your readership grows, i pray awareness, passion, compassion, concern, ACTION also increase. education for humans, enrichment for captive animals (well shucks – for jailed humans, too! have you seen the documentary “serving life”?) we hold on so dearly to antiquated beliefs that no longer serve us for what – fear of the unknown? how medieval of us. i myself have turned a blind eye to captive beings simply b/c its so overwhelming to see so much suffering. “what can i do?”
einstein said, “the world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” perhaps this is a call to us, the non-animal communicators, to do what WE can – writing letters to our local aquariums and zoos, talking more freely with animal caregivers and lovers about this strange thing called telepathy, creating space in our lives for more than just what makes US comfortable. i’ll start with myself.