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The Vancouver Aquarium has announced it will stop its practice of keeping cetaceans like whales and dolphins in captivity – citing public pressure as one of the reasons behind the decision.
According to aquarium President John Nightingale, the issue had become such a ‘hot topic’ that it was ‘hijacking everything else’.
He said: “The ongoing discussions about whales and dolphins in our care have been a distraction from real threats to the ocean and have sidelined the critical work we lead.”
The announcement follows years of campaigning, as well as the tragic deaths of a number of animals.
Five cetaceans have died at the aquarium over an 18-month span – including two belugas, Aurora and her calf Qila, who died due to exposure to a toxin of unknown origin in November 2016.
The three other mortalities included two harbour porpoises, and a false killer whale: June, Jack, and Chester.
Nightingale said the deaths, which left ‘a very bad taste in [their] mouths’ played a role in shaping public opinion.
He added: “But the activism [against keeping cetaceans in captivity] started way before that.”
According to Nightingale, the ban follows ‘months of discussion’ by senior leadership and the board of directors.
He said ‘most’ of the aquarium’s 500 staff members did want the ban – though some do support it.
He added: “I am disappointed, we all are disappointed.”
In addition to public pressure, he cited donation losses from some major philanthropists, and possibly the drop in visitor numbers as driving factors in the move.
The aquarium displays a number of animals
While Association of Zoos and Aquariums [AZA] president Dan Ashe described the decision as ‘agonizing’ and ‘forced’, many responders were ‘relieved’ – including No Whales in Captivity president, Annelise Sorg.
However, she did say she was ‘disappointed’ the aquarium didn’t cite animal cruelty as a reason for the change.
The Vancouver park board chair Stuart MacKinnon claimed its members are also ‘pleased’ with the resolution, saying: “The public told us they believed the continuing importation and display of these intelligent and sociable mammals was unethical and incompatible with evolving public opinion.”
Camille Labchuk of Animal Justice added: “The Vancouver Aquarium appears to have finally accepted that whale and dolphin captivity is no longer socially acceptable in Canada.
“The writing is on the wall for the whale and dolphin captivity industry.”
The aquarium is currently home to just one cetacean – a Pacific white-sided dolphin called Helen.
No decision has been made for Helen’s future yet – with sources saying moving her to another facility could endanger her health, but bringing in a companion for her would violate the dolphin ban.
In addition, Nightingale said an exemption will be sought for animals saved under the aquarium’s cetacean rescue program.
He said the aquarium wants to keep these animals in display pools before they move to new homes.