Laurenne Schiller doesn't know when she first visited the Vancouver Aquarium, only that she cannot remember a time without it. As a child, she was captivated first by the facility's killer whales, Finna and Bjossa, and later the baby beluga Qila. She sent them cards – for birthdays, Christmases, Valentine's Days – for years.
This week, Ms. Schiller, now 25, defended her master's thesis in zoology at the University of B.C. It followed a degree in marine and freshwater biology at the University of Guelph and four months of field work in the fishing villages of Madagascar. She credits the Vancouver Aquarium for sparking a lifelong interest in marine life.
"When you're staring at a creature and it stares back, there is just so much genuine recognition that there is an animal there and they see you," Ms. Schiller said. "You can't get that from a picture, or The Blue Planet. As a kid, you're so small and they're so big and you just feel like they're the most beautiful things you've ever seen. That makes you just instantly fall in love with them."
On Saturday, Ms. Schiller spoke as part of the aquarium's presentation at a special Vancouver Park Board meeting to decide the fate of the facility's captive cetaceans. Joseph Gaydos, chief scientist for the UC Davis Wildlife Health Centre's SeaDoc Society Program, also presented his report commissioned by the park board comparing Vancouver's aquarium to others around the world. Some of more than 132 registered speakers were able to address the park board; the remainder will be carried over to Monday.
NPA commissioner John Coupar recused himself from the aquarium file due to a potential conflict of interest with his employer and the aquarium, chair Aaron Jasper said. Fellow NPA commissioner Melissa De Genova is on vacation and was not present at Saturday's meeting, leaving the five Vision Vancouver commissioners.
With the aquarium, Shawn Noren, associate research scientist at the University of California Santa Cruz's Institute of Marine Science, told commissioners that captive cetaceans are needed to conduct valuable research. It is impossible to obtain certain data from cetaceans in the wild because there are too many variables that could impact results, she said.
Martin Haulena, the aquarium's head veterinarian, noted the facility operates the only marine mammal rescue centre in Canada and it rescues, rehabilitates and releases up to 100 marine mammals every year.
Dr. Gaydos, the independent author of the report, told commissioners the aquarium either meets or exceeds all standards set by accrediting or guiding agencies and its research benefits marine mammals in the wild. However, he recommended a large-scale scientific study to better understand the ethics of keeping cetaceans in captivity.
About two-dozen animal rights activists, bearing signs that called for the aquarium to "empty the tanks," stood outside the park board headquarters for the duration of the meeting.
"I'm here to support the end of having cetaceans in captivity because I believe these very smart animals deserve to be in the wild and not be used for humans and entertainment," said animal rights activist Cynthia Ganatra.
Denzil Nair, a dentist, said he had been following the debate for some time, recently deciding he opposed the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity.
"They have no voice. We have to be the voice for things that don't have a voice."