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04/01/2019 12:48 EDT | Updated 04/01/2019 16:03 EDT

Canadians Are Ready For 'Free Willy' Bill S-203 To Become Reality

It would finally ban the breeding, display and trade of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Even the largest aquarium in the world is far too small for marine mammals like whales and dolphins. How small? Less than one millionth of their natural range. Canada has the opportunity to be a leader in animal welfare by ending the captivity of these vast-roaming, deep-diving, intelligent, social animals.

The Fisheries and Oceans Committee is reviewing Bill S-203, "the Whale and Dolphin Captivity Act," this Tuesday. Also known as the "Free Willy" bill, it would ban the breeding, display and trade of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). I implore our government to pass this bill to help keep these animals in the wild where they belong and prevent them from suffering for human entertainment. If the bill doesn't pass before Parliament breaks in June, it will die before the next federal election and that would be a big disappointment to Canadians.

Noel Hendrickson via Getty Images
Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

A new report lays out the scientific evidence and ethical arguments to support the bill's passage. Published by World Animal Protection and the Animal Welfare Institute, the report also debunks the age-old myth that there are conservation and educational benefits to these types of tourist attractions. Many people may not realize these animals are being specifically bred for entertainment, never to be released into the wild. And what does a child learn watching a dolphin give their trainer a ride or beach themselves on stage? Captive cetacean displays give a false sense of who these animals are. Rather than inspire children to care for animals, I worry that it desensitizes people to their suffering by showing that it is acceptable to put animals in distress to fulfil our desire to get up close to them.

The science is clear — whales and dolphins suffer physically and psychologically when kept in shallow, barren concrete tanks, deprived of every opportunity to move and behave naturally. As a result of severe stress and boredom they can develop ulcers, break their teeth from chewing on concrete walls, self-mutilate, and can become dangerously aggressive. Many animals swim in endless circles or lie motionless in their tanks. One 2014 study reported that Tilikum, the orca who inspired the movie Blackfish, spent nearly 70 per cent of his time resting.

People are more aware of the cruel and dangerous nature of the trade in whales and dolphins for tourism.

While the facts are heartbreaking, a cultural shift is happening. Thanks to award-winning documentaries like Blackfish and The Cove, people are more aware of the cruel and dangerous nature of the trade in whales and dolphins for tourism. The enormous shift in public opinion and decreasing acceptability of these captive whale and dolphin venues has been dubbed the "Blackfish Effect."

After Blackfish was broadcast on major television stations, SeaWorld experienced a significant drop in visitor numbers and stock value. They announced in March 2016 that they would stop breeding orcas, effectively phasing out their exhibition.

Other facilities have followed suit. The National Aquarium in Baltimore is retiring their bottlenose dolphins to a seaside sanctuary, and two beluga whales are scheduled to arrive at the first seaside sanctuary this spring. Most recently, Dolphin Marine Magic in Coffs Harbour, Australia announced it would stop breeding its dolphins and transition to focus on rehabilitation, conservation and education. These venues show the industry how they can reshape the future of captive cetaceans. The Vancouver Aquarium has already been ordered to phase out its whale and dolphin displays. Marineland should follow suit.

The tide is turning

Like many who grew up in the Niagara Region, I went to Marineland as a child. One of my friends was kissed by a killer whale, the other wanted to be a dolphin trainer. We all felt something wasn't quite right about those childhood experiences but the acceptability was legitimized by the grown-ups in our lives.

CP PHOTO/Scott Dunlop
Tourists viewing a killer whale calf and a pod of beluga whales at Marineland, in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Thirty years later, I went back to Marineland and found it was very much the same. While I had travelled the world, had many different life experiences, the animals were living in the same small tanks, entertaining new crowds with the same tired show. What's new is there are many more animals that have been captured from the wild, bought, sold and bred for the park. They now have more than 50 beluga whales which is just astounding to me. They rotate them out every hour, sending only a few at a time to be fed, pet and photographed with a line-up of eager and misinformed tourists and then the next group of whales come in to perform like shift workers in a factory assembly line.

I was pleased to hear the mayor of Niagara Falls state his hope that Marineland will transition to be a modern animal-free attraction. Fortunately, views are changing across the rest of Canada, too. The proposed legislation has received broad support from Canadians as evidenced by the high volumes of letters sent on this issue which overwhelmed the Senate email system. A recent study done by Angus Reid Institute found that Canadians are more than twice as likely to support a ban on keeping cetaceans in captivity than to be in favour of the practice.

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The tide is clearly turning, but will the Canadian government lead this shift towards a more ethical way of experiencing wildlife? That will soon be determined as Members of the Fisheries and Oceans Committee review Bill S-203 clause by clause. With a federal election this year, MPs from all parties would be wise to listen to Canadians who have overwhelmingly spoken up in support of protecting whales and dolphins.

Jurisdictions around the world have passed legislation to restrict the trade in captive cetaceans for tourist entertainment, including Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Luxembourg, the U.K., Switzerland and the City of Vancouver. It's time for Canada to join them! Let's pass Bill S-203 and ensure the more than 50 whales and dolphins currently kept in Canadian aquariums are the last generation to suffer for tourist entertainment.

Melissa Matlow is the Campaign Director for World Animal Protection Canada. Visit worldanimalprotection.ca to learn more.

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