Skip to main content

Jane Goodall is interviewed in her hotel room in Montreal on March 29, 2014.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver Aquarium plans to invite Dr. Jane Goodall to visit after the world-famous primatologist wrote a letter criticizing the institution's captive whale program as being "no longer defensible by science."

Dr. John Nightingale, president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, was clearly taken aback by her comments, which became public just as he was announcing a new science initiative.

"It's kind of surprising that she did what she did," he said Tuesday, speaking at the Vancouver Board of Trade. "It was a very uncharacteristic move and I think born out of information that is in some ways inaccurate."

In a letter to the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Dr. Goodall added her voice to a growing chorus of critics (PDF) who are calling on the Vancouver Aquarium to end its captive breeding program for belugas.

"The capture, breeding and keeping of cetaceans world-wide has come under increasing scrutiny due to recent high-profile stories being released from industry insiders," wrote Dr. Goodall in an apparent reference to the documentary, Blackfish, which traces the troubled and violent lives of several captive killer whales in SeaWorld, a U.S. theme park chain.

"Those of us who have had the fortunate opportunity to study wild animals in their natural settings where family, community structure and communication form a foundation for these animals' existence, know the implication of captivity on such species," she stated.

Dr. Goodall said captive whale breeding programs are harmful to whales and simply cannot be justified.

"This is demonstrated by the high mortality rates evident in these breeding programs and by the ongoing use of these animals in interactive shows as entertainment," she wrote.

Dr. Goodall said society is questioning the policy of keeping "highly cognitive species like primates, elephants, and cetaceans" in captivity, and asked the Vancouver Park Board and the Aquarium to phase out the cetacean programs.

But Dr. Nightingale hopes to convince Dr. Goodall to reconsider her criticism of the Vancouver Aquarium – which is planning bigger tanks for eight belugas and eight dolphins in a $60-million expansion project.

"We don't think Dr. Goodall has ever been to the Aquarium … and that she's clearly operating on information provided by the activist community and so our role today is to reach back to her and explain to her what's going on," he said in his speech.

At a later press conference Dr. Nightingale compared the Vancouver Aquarium's long running research on wild killer whales with Dr. Goodall's ground breaking research on chimpanzees in the jungles of Tanzania.

Dr. Goodall, who is headed to Australia later this week for a month-long speaking tour, couldn't be reached immediately for comment.

Andria Teather, CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, said Dr. Goodall's letter is "about the issue" of captive whales and it is not directed at how the Vancouver Aquarium cares for its whales.

She said Dr. Goodall may be in Vancouver this fall and perhaps could visit the Aquarium at that time.

The letter was released late Monday night and Dr. Nightingale was asked about it Tuesday as he announced the launch of a new Coastal Ocean Research Institute. CORI is meant to establish a forum to track marine health on the West Coast.

Dr. Nightingale said the institute will raise funds from a variety of sources, including possibly the oil and gas industry, although all funds will have to be donated without strings attached.

CORI will conduct original research, but its key role will be collaborating with the hundreds of researchers already at work on the West Coast, Dr. Nightingale said.

"The aquarium is unusual in that it is kind of in the seam between many organizations, institutions and government agencies," he said.

Dr. Nightingale said CORI has been six years in planning and the goal is to see it in operation for the next 50 years, so that it can build a long-running set of indices to help track the health of the ocean.