Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cetaceans in captivity: a necessary part of marine conservation - or an idea past its time?

The lead article in today's Vancouver Sun focused on an issue that has become a very controversial and complex subject.

The story "Turbulent waters ahead for Vancouver's captive whales" is bound to stir up emotions and some heated conversation, as it's a topic about which almost everyone seems to have an opinion.

Often, opinions will change over time. Sometimes more than once.

The article is very well written, it presents both sides of what has the potential to become a very divisive subject. I won't go into its details here, as you can read it at the link above. However, I have a perspective about this topic different from many, because of my own experiences.
It's feeding time at the aquarium.
(Photo courtesy of Vancouver Aquarium)
 In April of 2005, Wildlife Conservation Magazine assigned me to write an article based on experiencing the Vancouver Aquarium's beluga encounters program

The society has since stopped publishing the magazine, but when it was in publication, there was one department every month, At the Zoo, that focused on a zoo or aquarium that was a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a non-profit organization that accredits facilities meet rigorous standards for animal care. The Vancouver Aquarium is a member.

Anyway, I showed up before the facility opened for the public, took a tour (and actually got reacquainted with a hyacinth macaw I'd met two years before at the old Crystal Gardens in Victoria - the parrots ended up in the the aquarium's care), then proceeded to participate in the beluga experience.

It was a wonderful experience, being close to such beautiful, intelligent and playful creatures. I helped prepare the food, I performed some basic commands with the help of the trainers, I engaged in a "splashing" fight (and lost!) and patted Aurora.

I enjoyed it immensely, as I enjoy all interactions with animals. I wrote my story and filed it with the magazine.

Within a week or two of filing the story, Tuvaq, a baby beluga, died at the aquarium. I wasn't sure what to do; I knew the story had been slated for the next month's issue, and I didn't know how far into the publication process the magazine was. I decided I needed to let the editor know, since I wanted to continue writing for them. I emailed her the info along with links about the death.

The magazine decided to pull the story, and it never was published. Fortunately, it still paid me for my effort. Unfortunately, the aquarium never really got any publicity from letting me enjoy my "freebie" experience, and I felt a bit bad about that.

As I began to think about the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity, I also felt a little guilty that I had enjoyed my experience with Aurora.

I also felt as an accredited professional travel writer, I had not followed through properly by placing the story elsewhere. If a facility allows a writer access to that type of experience, a professional should follow through, regardless of personal feelings.

So I was very conflicted by the whole affair.

I have come to the personal opinion that keeping cetaceans in captivity is wrong. Some will agree with that, others will disagree.

No one ever wins a splashing fight with a beluga.
(Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Aquarium)
But it's much more complicated than most people realize. There are other factors that need to be considered.

I do think aquariums play a key role in conservation of marine life. The Vancouver Aquarium has also helped many wild marine animals in distress, animals that might have suffered and even died without aquarium intervention. For that, funding is needed. Plenty of funding. And that comes from crowds of visitors flocking to the facility every year.

One of the questions I have that the Sun article did not really answer is, "What would happen to the numbers of visitors (and funding for rescue and research) if all of the high-profile animals were suddenly not there?"

I realize there is no way to really know that, but it's unfortunate the article did not at least speculate about that, and address it. It did mention that before there were large charismatic creatures there, the annual visitor turnout was about 300,000. It would be interesting to see how the numbers would compare now, and how management might view that changing if the whales and dolphins were no longer there.

I believe people really crave a connection with animals, with the wild. Encounters like the one offered at the aquarium provide that to those who cannot access them in their natural habitat. That can produce an incentive to help protect them in the wild. But is that a good thing? Probably not, at least not for the best health of the individual captive animals.

Wildlife conservation and animal welfare often find themselves at loggerheads on these types of issues, and there is never an easy answer.

I'm very lucky because I have the resources - as well as a career - that afford me the ability to see many creatures in their wild habitat. In fact, a few years ago, I had tentatively planned to go paddling in sea kayaks in an area of Quebec, through Tourisme Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean, that would have allowed me to see wild belugas. Unfortunately, health issues caused cancellation of that plan and I have not had the opportunity to do that again.

But many people do not have that kind of access.

Complicating this issue of wild animals in captivity is the fact that many wild animals are endangered; one of the functions of zoos and aquariums in the AZA is participation in the species survival plan. While I personally think animals should not be kept in cages, an argument can be made that without this genetic pool of endangered animals, many of these species could become extinct within the next 50 years - and we will lose them completely from our planet, they will exist only as memories and photographs.

Again, ideally, they should be able to live in the wild - but there is less and less wild for them to live in. Example: there are more tigers in captivity in the world than are wild ones, now; but there is not enough suitable habitat for all the living tigers on this planet. It's a real Catch-22. 

And that does not even begin to address the poaching issue.

In a perfect world, all the good done by aquariums would not be dependent upon keeping animals like beluga whales in captivity. Whether we can obtain that successfully is always open for debate.

But it is certainly something to aim for, and work toward.

Aurora goes through her paces at the aquarium.

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