After months of deliberation, Sir Richard Branson has finally settled on the language of the pledge he wants captive facilities to make if they would like to continue to do business with Virgin companies. Here is how the Virgin Pledge reads:
While Branson and Virgin should get credit for at least engaging on this issue, and while this pledge would mean that a marine park can’t just buy a Taiji dolphin and continue to do business with Virgin, that’s about all it achieves. If you caught lots of wild dolphins for your shows before February 2014, no problem. If you engage in breeding loans with marine parks that capture wild dolphins and killer whales, no problem as long as the animal you are importing wasn’t wild caught (though it can be the offspring of a wild dolphin or whale, allowing your breeding program to benefit from wild captures). So the limitations it places on marine parks are quite narrow. Perhaps that’s why many, including SeaWorld, have already signed the pledge.
More problematic is the fact that the pledge is riddled with potential loopholes, for “rehabilitation,” “rescue,” and (this one could eventually be massive) “support for endangered species.”
The pledge says that rehab of injured or stranded wild dolphins or whales is okay, as long as you go to the trouble of at least pretending that you intend to try and follow rehab with release. But if you don’t happen to follow through, then feel free to go ahead and use the rehabbed animal in your shows and in your breeding program. Sorry, Morgan.
Rescue is similar. If a government authority deems your rescued dolphin or killer whale non-releasable, you are good to go. Shows, breeding, whatever.
What is not clear is whether a “rehabilitation” animal needs a government agency to say the animal can’t be released (making the animal a “rescue” animal?) in order for a facility to keep the animal. Or whether the simple declared intention to rehab and release is enough for Virgin to continue doing business with you if you decide circumstances have changed and you can’t release your rehabbed dolphin or whale. If the latter, then the “rescue” provision pretty much does nothing.
In some ways, that distinction doesn’t really matter. If Sir Richard and Virgin had dug deep enough into the issue of rehab and rescue they would have discovered that it is without question a backdoor into captivity for at least a proportion of wild animals, often with the willing assent of government authorities who for decades have sided with the marine parks over conservation groups when it comes to deciding whether an animal is releasable or not.
The last exception, “Support For Endangered Species” sounds like it could develop into a significant loophole, though we’ll have to see how Virgin chooses to interpret its language. These days, many wild captures or import permit requests claim that bringing a wild animal into captivity will help conserve it in the wild. However, most dolphin species (including most killer whale populations), and many whale species are not listed as endangered.
So what will this exception mean in practice? If the Georgia Aquarium succeeds in reversing the National Marine Fisheries Service denial of its request to import 18 wild-caught belugas, would Virgin stop doing business with Georgia Aquarium? Georgia Aquarium, notably, has not yet signed Virgin’s pledge. But SeaWorld has. Would SeaWorld be able to “borrow” some of Georgia Aquarium’s wild-caught belugas and claim this exemption by arguing it will be helping conserve wild beluga populations? If it could then the exemption will open up a pretty big door into captivity for wild-caught animals, especially as wild populations continue to come under pressure from pollution, noise and climate change.
Here’s the bottom line. Virgin says that “our core objective was to eliminate demand for whales and dolphins from the wild.” I think a fair reading of the pledge is that it could reduce demand for wild captures (and how great that reduction is will depend on how Virgin interprets the actions of marine parks according to the Pledge), but it will certainly not eliminate demand.
For all these reasons, whale and dolphin groups have issued a statement in response to the Virgin Pledge, correctly noting its limitations. Smartly, they call on Virgin to continue refining its pledge to reflect evolving public opinion on the issue of marine mammal captivity:
Although the pledge is a step in the right direction, we expected more from the Virgin stakeholder process, and we are calling on Virgin to return to the table to discuss key future actions including a commitment to (1) work with suppliers to end shows and captive breeding programs within a specified timeframe , (2) prohibit breeding or display as part of rescue or rehabilitation programs, and (3) help develop sanctuaries or other alternative display environments that ultimately improve the quality of life for captives that may never be returned to the wild.
This is exactly the right response, and since this controversy over captivity will not go away simply because Virgin has issued its first take on the pledge, I think that the dialogue between Virgin and all stakeholders will continue to evolve over the coming years. Of course, that does not do much good for the dolphins and whales currently in captivity. But I think the Virgin Pledge reflects an important acknowledgement that there are ethical issues with regard to the current captivity model, and that changing public opinion means that the captive industry is not always a good industry to be doing business with (as Southwest and others have also concluded). And as public opinion and awareness of the ethical issues raised by marine mammal captivity continue to build, businesses like Virgin will continue to challenge the captive industry to evolve and change for the better.
[Personal nit-pick on the Virgin Pledge: Sir Richard, in his introduction of the Virgin Pledge, says that the announcement he made in February, which set all this in motion, was that Virgin businesses would only do business with suppliers who pledge not to take “sea mammals” from the wild. Yet the pledge only applies to cetacea (dolphins and whales). So as far as Virgin is concerned it is still a free-for-all when it comes to capturing wild sea lions, walruses, and other pinnipeds for the shows. Somehow they got dropped from the pledge, and since that is the case Virgin should stop referring to the “Virgin Pledge On Sea Mammals.” It should correctly be called be the “Virgin Pledge On Some Sea Mammals (But Not All Of Them Because People Care More About Dolphins And Whales)”].