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Honest answers to aquarium ethics questions aren’t simple

The debate over whether whales and dolphins ought to be kept in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium is about as perennial as the cherry blossoms in this city, and like the blossoms it is often intense and fleeting.

As for what sparked it this time around, I think you can split the credit equally between COPE – the Vancouver civic party which is calling for a referendum on the upcoming civic ballot – and Netflix, which has recently offered up the documentary Blackfish, a film that makes a strong case against keeping captive cetaceans.

I have a complicated relationship with the Vancouver Aquarium. Covering the park board many years ago, I listened to hours of debate about the relative merits and disadvantages of keeping large, intelligent sea mammals in small concrete pools for the amusement of ticketholders.

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Oh wait, I've tipped my hand. Let me try that again.

Covering the park board many years ago, I listened to hours of debate about the relative merits and disadvantages of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity for the purposes of research, rehabilitation, and education – and continuing to care for them if they could not be released into the wild.

Those two interpretations exist simultaneously somehow without cancelling each other out – likely because they're both true. They're at the heart of why people like Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson can express discomfort with keeping cetaceans in captivity but take no action to bring it to an end. Mr. Robertson has instead kicked it over to the park board. Park board chair Aaron Jasper says he'll bring a motion to the board asking for a public report on the issue and looking at "best practices," but he was silent on the issue of a referendum.

Like a lot of people, it was parenthood that finally got me to set foot inside the aquarium. It didn't take long to figure out that buying a membership was far more economical than paying for individual visits. I've kept that membership for the past 10 years, aware that it may be viewed as a tacit endorsement of the place. For my kids, the aquarium has been an ever-shifting and expanding place of wonder and discovery. At times it has been a refuge. They've grown up snacking in the deep window wells of the dolphin exhibit, taking for granted the creatures on the other side of the glass. It's only in the past couple of years that the conversation has turned to the ethics of keeping the dolphins where they are.

My two oldest, aged 10 and 11, are both convinced that all of the resident marine mammals at the aquarium have at some point been rescued, and remain at the aquarium because they've been deemed not suitable for release. My 10-year-old even used the word "deemed" when I asked him about it this week. "If you keep them too long, then they sadly have to be deemed unreleasable because they've had too much contact with humans," he told me with authority.

Both can cite instance after instance where the aquarium has stepped in to save an orphaned seal, an injured porpoise – even an otter that had been shot in the face. I think they're getting the same news releases I am. Both have had behind-the-scenes exposure to the aquarium, during birthday parties and school sleepovers. They say the ethics of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity has never been a topic of discussion.

But they argue with conviction that it's the educational part of the aquarium that makes it distinct from, say, a city zoo.

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My daughter – the 11-year-old – says people may be drawn to the aquarium by the belugas and dolphins, but once there they discover something else. "I think they go for entertainment but then while they're getting entertained they see that there's more to it – more to learn and that we can conserve these animals," she says.

Finally I ask them, "It doesn't bother you? When we walk by these tanks and see the belugas and dolphins swimming in the tanks – that doesn't bother you?"

The reply from my daughter, "You're setting us up to be bothered."

From my son, "Yeah, we're done here."

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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