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British Columbia Vancouver beluga’s death renews push to free the whales

Kavna the beluga whale, shown with her baby, Qila, appears to have died of cancer associated with old age.

Meighan Makarchuk/Vancouver Aquarium/The Canadian Press

Raffi Cavoukian fell in love with Kavna in 1979, and the beautiful whale inspired his hit song Baby Beluga.

"She was just so playful and smiling, I would say," Mr. Cavoukian said on Tuesday.

Kavna, the beluga who was visited by about 30 million people over her 36-year career at the Vancouver Aquarium and graced a Canada Post stamp, died over the long weekend at an estimated 46 years old.

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Mr. Cavoukian, a B.C. resident, had been against capturing wild whales for public entertainment, a paradox he said he has still not resolved. Yet, the intimate meeting between Kavna and the children's entertainer – she kissed him on the cheek –sparked his love for belugas and inspired the song, he said, which then helped foster a love of nature and animals in millions of his fans.

"If you love something, you naturally want to protect it," he said.

Kavna is believed to have been the oldest of her species in an accredited North American aquarium, said Clint Wright, the aquarium's senior vice-president and general manager, although aquariums in the United States have some belugas in their 30s. Wild belugas can live up to 30 years, he said.

Mr. Wright said Kavna helped millions of visitors understand the problems in the Arctic where climate change may threaten thousands of belugas. Currently, only two out of Canada's seven beluga populations are endangered.

"It's only by bringing these animals, talking about them, having great interpretation [and] talking about the issues that we make people aware," he said.

The Vancouver Aquarium intends to increase its beluga population, which is now down to a mother-daughter pair. After construction is completed on a new Arctic habitat around 2016, staff will bring in a male partner to breed another whale, said Mr. Wright, for continued public education and academic research, despite concerns from animal welfare groups.

Public education does not have to rely on an animal's captivity, said Barbara Cartwright, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.

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"We can do public education out in the wild," she said, referring to popular whale-watching tours. "We don't need to have [animals] brought in or bred in captivity where their needs can't be met." She said aquariums are unable to provide enough space for a beluga's natural behavioural and environmental needs, such as travelling long distances.

But captive belugas are easier to study because their natural habitat makes research difficult, according to the aquarium's website. Vancouver Aquarium researchers have learned a lot by studying their captive whales, Mr. Wright said. Kavna's teeth were studied in whale-aging research.

Researchers still study wild belugas, said Ms. Cartwright of the CHFS, which does not support the aquarium's decision to breed more captive whales. The organization says the animal's suffering in captivity outweighs the potential research.

The aquarium acquired Kavna in the summer of 1976 off Churchill, Man., and she died at about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, said Martin Haulena, the staff veterinarian. Veterinary staff were able to estimate her age because she gave birth after arriving at the aquarium. Dr. Haulena said he attributes her old age to luck, good genes and veterinary medicine advancements.

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