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The Sun Is Setting On Whale And Dolphin Captivity In Canada

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Over the last few years, we've been watching the sun set on the practice of keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises -- or cetaceans -- in captive displays.

In Canada, there are only two facilities that still undertake this cruel practice: Marineland -- a for-profit amusement park currently in court answering to 11 animal cruelty charges and no longer accredited within the industry -- and Vancouver Aquarium, whose landlord has voted 6-1 to ban the import and display of cetaceans on its land.

marineland whale
(Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

This bylaw goes into effect immediately, preventing the Vancouver Aquarium from bringing any new cetaceans to its facility, foiling their plans to repatriate animals for a new captive display after a mother and daughter beluga died in their care last year.

John Nightingale, president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, says that the Vancouver Park Board's decision is based on the opinion of "the vocal few" rather than listening to the scientific community.

But the scientific community is clear in its stance against cetacean captivity. During the second reading of Bill S-203 in November 2016, the world's leading marine mammal experts went on record to say the practice cannot be justified in the face of a growing body of scientific knowledge about their biological needs. I also recently weighed in on what science says about this issue.

The irony is that the Vancouver Aquarium had already decided to stop displaying cetaceans for public entertainment by 2029. If that's their intent, why resist this move by the Park Board to accomplish it sooner?

"Claims that research performed on captive animals is for their benefit are specious, at best."
-- Dr. Sidney J. Holt

When John Nightingale recently testified before the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans about Bill S-203 on May 4, he said adopting Bill S-203 would actually harm cetaceans because it would curtail the Vancouver Aquarium's supposed contributions to research and conservation.

But when Senator Éric Forest (Quebec) pressed Nightingale about where he could find the Aquarium's research -- so that Forest could share such critical scientific knowledge with marine mammal conservation groups -- Nightingale admitted that his organization hasn't published any research related to cetaceans in the last 10 years.

What he didn't tell the Senate Committee is that most of the (unpublished) research that aquaria do on captive cetaceans relates to husbandry practices (i.e. breeding and care of captive animals) and does little to benefit wild animals or their conservation.

The value of these "contributions" to research and conservation have been thoroughly debunked over the years. Dr. Sidney J. Holt, a renowned marine scientist with 50 years of research experience says: "Claims that research performed on captive animals is for their benefit are specious, at best."

vancouver aquarium
Vancouver Aquarium, splashes in a medical holding tank after being transferred to Sea World in San Diego, April 22, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Instead, let's work to support ethical and useful research on cetaceans: research that takes place in the wild. Unlike in captive displays, research in an animal's habitat affords us a realistic view of the natural behaviours of these animals without causing a lifetime of pain and suffering.

It says something that the head veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium, Dr. Martin Haulena, admitted during his testimony to the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans he can't outright deny that captivity causes harm to cetaceans.

As Bill S-203 winds its way through the Senate, let's show this cruel industry that using cetaceans for entertainment and profit is an abhorrent practice that Canadians no longer support. If passed, this bill would ban the import, export, display and captive breeding of cetaceans -- protections that these animals desperately need.

Do your part by reaching out to all of Canada's Senators to let them know that you support Bill S-203 -- and that they should, too.

Click here to download contact info for the Senate of Canada.

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