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Puncturing Vancouver's Moby Doll Myth

08/08/2013 12:42 EDT | Updated 10/08/2013 05:12 EDT

"Blackfish!" he said, pointing his chopsticks at me. "I bet you it's all because of Blackfish."

I was having lunch with a Vancouver newspaper editor and I noticed a stupid grin returning to my face. I couldn't help it. Just the mention of "Blackfish" was enough to make me smile.

The editor was complaining bitterly about the intense pressure he was getting from Vancouver Aquarium supporters who wanted to get their aquarium-friendly Moby Doll stories published in his newspaper.

Moby Doll was the first-ever orca whale to be kept in captivity, courtesy of the Vancouver Aquarium. A whaler was hired to kill an orca for use as a model to build a fiberglass replica for a new public display. The orca was harpooned but she didn't die. So the aquarium directed the whaler to tow her -- by the line attached to the harpoon still stuck in that poor animal -- for 80 nautical miles through rough seas to Vancouver's Burrard Drydocks. There she was placed in a makeshift sea pen until she starved to death a couple of months later.

Before Moby Doll died, thousands of people came to take a look. The sordid spectacle of death gave birth to the enormously profitable captive orca exhibition industry.

The aquarium, directed by top corporate Vancouver businessmen hiding behind the institution's infamous and insidious non-profit status, saw an opportunity to make whale-loads of money. They promptly began lobbying municipal, provincial and federal governments to fork out hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to build whale tanks in Stanley Park.

Despite strong opposition by local humane societies and animal welfare groups, the aquarium got the province and feds to agree, but Vancouver's mayor recognized that the issue was becoming a dangerously hot political potato and decided to let Vancouverites have a say. A public referendum vote was held asking Vancouverites if the aquarium should get more Stanley Park land to build whale tanks. But, despite the government and corporate backing, the aquarium lost!

A majority of Vancouver voters said "no" to keeping captive orcas in the park. Unfortunately, the city clerk counting the votes allowed spoiled ballots to count in favour of whale captivity. That's how the aquarium got its first hefty government grant to build whale tanks and to capture whales to keep the tanks stocked. There have been many more hefty government grants to build more whale tanks since then, but the aquarium has vigorously -- and successfully -- lobbied against another public referendum on whale captivity from being held in Vancouver.

"And now they're thinking of doing a documentary on Moby Doll!" the exasperated editor shouted, waving his chopsticks wildly, ranting in disbelief.

"Now why the hell would they want to make a documentary about the first whale that they killed in captivity? What are they thinking? That the public is so stupid that they won't see through the aquarium's propaganda? Oh, and get this! They're trying to convince me that the only reason people love whales is because of the Vancouver Aquarium. Give me a break!"

Suddenly, it all fit. The upcoming aquarium documentary was to be part of a campaign to make Moby Doll into something the captivity industry could be proud rather than ashamed of.

With the release of the "Blackfish" documentary being screened right now at the Vancity Theatre (Aug. 2 to 18), maybe the aquarium was trying to put together its own version of Moby Doll to try to make the whale-captivity industry look better somehow. Of course, all the commissioned favourable newspaper articles would be included in the Moby Doll movie!

I also finally understood why the aquarium recently organized that bizarre "Moby Doll" meeting on Saturna Island where only green-washed local marine conservation groups -- you know who you are -- were allowed to participate. The exclusion of any critical voice ensured that only aquarium-friendly footage for the documentary would be shot.

"What a joke! I bet you that aquarium documentary won't tell the public that the only reason our killer whales are now classified as endangered species -- was because they captured all those young whales to supply aquariums!" the editor fumed, shaking his head.

"I bet you the aquarium is just reacting to the Blackfish movie, and that really pisses me off."

My smile grew even bigger. I realized that once again the Vancouver Aquarium was harassing a newspaper editor, obviously ignoring the simple rule that you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

After downing his last piece of tofu teriyaki, he finally stopped spouting, looked up at me and asked, "And why the hell do you have that grin on your face?"

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