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Ontario's Solicitor-General has accounted for the deaths of 13 beluga whales, one killer whale and one dolphin at Marineland in the four years since the province passed Bill S-203.Tara Walton/The Canadian Press

Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance journalist and animal advocate based in Winnipeg.

Since 2019, it has been illegal to bring any new whales, dolphins or other porpoises into Canada for entertainment purposes. The federal Parliament’s passage of Bill S-203 (or the “Free Willy” bill) is, of course, a good thing. But something else is happening too: the culture itself is turning away from the exploitation and captivity of wild animals.

A 2019 survey found that just over half the Canadian population opposes keeping animals in zoos and aquariums, with that number rising to 56 per cent among younger demographics, suggesting that the number is likely to grow with time. And this spring, Kiska – the ”world’s loneliest orca” – died in Marineland, after living at the Niagara park for more than four decades, including spending her final 12 years in torturous solitary confinement. That death further galvanized outrage.

And we saw that play out last week, after The Canadian Press reported that the Ontario Solicitor-General had accounted for the deaths of 13 beluga whales, one killer whale and one dolphin at Marineland in the four years since Bill S-203 was passed. Even long-time defenders criticized Marineland: Wayne Gates, the local member of provincial parliament, called the reports of the deaths “highly disturbing”, while Niagara Mayor Jim Diodati – who has said that he’s been going to Marineland all his life – put it plainly: “It’s run its course and it’s time to change direction.” Earlier this year, Marineland registered to lobby the Ontario government with the aim of selling the park, and Mr. Diodati is hopeful it will then shift away from animal captivity.

Despite that, Marineland remains open for business, as does the Vancouver aquarium, which currently holds one dolphin along with various other marine animals. Animal advocates remain concerned; urgent intervention is still needed. But the question remains: since returning them to the wild is not an option, where should or could the 50 or so whales and dolphins still languishing in captivity in our country go, to be better cared for?

The answer, at least in the short term, appears to be sea sanctuaries – but there aren’t enough around the world. Camille Labchuk, an animal rights lawyer and the executive director of Animal Justice, says Kiska – as well as Lolita, a.k.a. Tokitae, the killer whale who recently died at the Miami Sea Aquarium after more than a half-century in captivity – are “great examples of orcas who could have been saved had we had sanctuaries sooner.” The first open-water whale sanctuary opened off the coast of Iceland in 2019, where two beluga whales once used for entertainment have since been successfully reintroduced to the semi-wild environment.

In Canada, The Whale Sanctuary Project had been working to free Kiska from Marineland, so she could retire to a proposed ocean sanctuary off the coast of Nova Scotia. The sanctuary was meant to provide around-the-clock care while also allowing rescued whales to live as naturally as possible in a 100-acre netted off section of Port Hilford Bay. The project was slow-moving even before she died, however, and so far the dream has yet to become reality as the project copes with regulatory and environmental hurdles. Ms. Labchuk says it’s high time that governments get involved to accelerate the process, before even more animals die.

“Governments should step in to fund and expedite seaside sanctuaries,” she says, “and force places like Marineland to help pick up the tab through reparations for the decades of harm they have caused to these smart and sensitive animals.”

However, another vocal advocate says there isn’t even time for that. Phil Demers, a former Marineland employee turned whistle-blower, says the remaining whales and dolphins at Marineland need to be moved immediately to other marine parks already in existence after a 2021 provincial investigation found that the park’s animals were suffering with poor water quality. “It’s the only thing that can spare them from that water,” he says. “Thereafter, we protest those very facilities demanding better again.”

Whatever the right way is to save Canada’s captive whales and dolphins, at least this much is true: we must never allow this to happen again. And further, we must consider today the other wild animals we are still treating this way; after all, Marineland is also home to collections of sea lions, penguins, bears, bison, elk, deer and more. “Ultimately, we need to think now about how to prevent a similar tragedy in the future,” says Ms. Labchuk, “and begin outlawing captivity for as many species as possible.”

After all, it may be only a matter of time before the culture keeps moving, and we will start asking where all of Canada’s captive animals should go next.

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