Vancouver Aquarium’s Internal Response To Blackfish

What do you think of me being here at the Vancouver Aquarium?

Here is what I am told was a note sent to staff at the Vancouver Aquarium, to help address the issues raised in Blackfish. It is a lot more reasoned than SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish, but at the same time is an interesting insight into the arguments aquariums make about captive marine mammals. 

Vancouver Aquarium has had a long and checkered history, that has included trading in, and keeping captive, killer whales, dolphins and belugas. At the same time, it is a non-profit, and I think is qualitatively different (especially in its current version) than a for-profit entertainment corporation like SeaWorld. That doesn’t mean I think that Vancouver Aquarium should keep cetaceans, or has always acted sincerely or with the best interests of marine mammals in mind. I don’t (and I wish more aquariums would follow the more ethical model of the Monterey Aquarium). But I do think that Vancouver Aquarium is on more solid ground when it comes to trying to make the case for keeping cetaceans captive. So their arguments are worth noting.

That said, what I think is most interesting about Vancouver Aquarium’s response to Blackfish is that it doesn’t really try to make the case that marine mammals are suitable for captivity, and don’t suffer in captivity. Instead, it makes the tried and truthy argument that keeping marine mammals captive helps humans connect with them and care about how they are doing in the wild. In other words, there is a trade-off, and the ends justify the means. I disagree with that calculus, and think that the more people understand the reality of what killer whales and dolphins experience in captivity, the less they will be willing to buy that argument.

Here’s the memo:

Some of you may have seen the documentary “Blackfish” which has been playing in theatres across North America and aired on CNN several times last week. The film is a documentary that focuses on SeaWorld, their display of killer whales and the tragic death of one of their trainers in 2010. SeaWorld chose not to participate in the making of the documentary.

Blackfish attempts to “expose” SeaWorld’s supposed negligence in areas from employee safety to animal welfare largely through personal opinion and allegations made by a handful of former trainers depicted in the film. Some of the footage and testimony is disturbing and there are staff here that can tell you from first-hand experience that caring for killer whales is a demanding occupation, requiring concentration at all times and a comprehensive understanding of killer whale behaviour.

A member of the Senior Staff has spent a great deal of time working with the professional and dedicated team at SeaWorld and has also spent time at all their facilities and with many of their animals. He comments that their facilities are amazing, their animal care expertise is outstanding, the safety training that he has witnessed is first class and, without a doubt, their research has directly and  positively impacted the lives of thousands of marine mammals around the world.

SeaWorld, like all U.S. facilities caring for marine mammals, is licensed to do so by the U.S. federal government and regularly inspected. SeaWorld adheres to the strict standards of all federal and state laws, including the Animal Welfare Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as the professional Standards and Guidelines of the international Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, which surpass government standards for the care of the animals.

Although the film is not about Vancouver Aquarium, it is important to share some of our messaging on killer whales so that you may respond to inquiries as needed.

What happened to the killer whales at Vancouver Aquarium?

Bjossa, the Vancouver Aquarium’s last killer whale, was transferred to SeaWorld in San Diego in April 2001 to provide her with the companionship of other killer whales. Sadly, Bjossa succumbed to a chronic lung infection that she had been battling for two years and passed away on October 8, 2001.

What is the Aquarium’s policy on capturing whales and dolphins?

On September 16, 1996, Vancouver Aquarium became the first aquarium in the world to make a commitment to no longer capture cetaceans from the wild for display and to only care for:

• Cetaceans that were captured before 1996

• Cetaceans that were already being kept in a zoo or aquarium before 1996

• Cetaceans that were born in a zoo or aquarium

• Cetaceans that were rescued from the wild and rehabilitated, but deemed un-releasable by the appropriate government authorities

Why have animals in aquariums?

Aquariums perform a vital role in educating people about aquatic conservation and contribute to critical research to conserve aquatic life. Seeing animals in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for connecting with our oceans and animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and engagement that leads to positive behavioral changes.

More information: http://www.vanaqua.org/learn/aquafacts/the-aquarium/whales-in-aquariums

The Story Of Moby Doll

If you want to know how the whole raking-in-the-bucks-by-putting-killer-whales-on-public-display thing really got rolling, you need to know the sad and enraging story of Moby Doll.

Recently, there was a gathering to reflect on the (almost) 50-year anniversary of Moby Doll’s capture, and all that followed:

Orcas, or killer whales, were traditionally feared, revered, and respected by the indigenous people of the coast. That sentiment morphed with the growth of commercial salmon fisheries into one of dislike and aggression, as the so-called “blackfish” were seen as dangerous competitors for fish. No one thought it was safe to come near them and it was not uncommon to shoot them. Little was known about their natural history, and they were still scientifically unstudied by the 1960s.

In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium, which had been in operation for eight years, planned to harvest a killer whale for dissection, study, and use as a model for a realistic statue at the entrance to their facility. A team from the aquarium headed to Saturna, the southernmost of the Gulf Islands, and set up a harpoon on the rocks of East Point, now part of the National Park Reserve.

In due course, a pod of orcas arrived, and the five-metre-long Moby Doll was harpooned. Unexpectedly, it failed to die, as two other members of the pod swam to support it at the ocean’s surface. The aquarium team realized that they could bring the relatively calm animal back alive, and towed it 65 kilometres back to Vancouver.

They called it Moby Doll, mistaking the young male for a female, and exhibited him in a pen in the harbour, where he created a sensation. The public and media flocked to visit.

This was the first ever captive orca and as described by the Saturna symposium organizers, it “triggered a goldrush” on young orcas. Dozens were subsequently captured and put on display in aquariums around the world. The intelligent animals were often taught tricks, and would perform in shows.

Moby Doll survived just 88 days in captivity, but that was long enough to demonstrate the profit potential of live killer whale displays. More here, from the Whale Of A Business site over at PBS.