Camille Labchuk is a lawyer and the executive director of Animal Justice, a national animal-law advocacy organization.
Dan Hooley is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Toronto and an associate fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
The recent deaths of Qila and Aurora, two beluga whales exhibited at the Vancouver Aquarium, have given new urgency to the debate about whether smart, social creatures such as whales should be kept in captivity.
Qila was the first beluga whale conceived and born in captivity in Canada. Her mother, Aurora, was captured in the waters off Churchill, Man., in 1990 and from that moment never experienced life beyond the confines of a tank.
After Qila died, apparently in agony from stomach pains, Aurora began showing the same symptoms and quickly died as well. Staff at the Vancouver Aquarium have so far been unable to diagnose the illness.
In the decades since Aurora was captured, societal views on cetacean captivity have shifted, and exhibiting these animals for our amusement is rapidly becoming obsolete. The only other facility in Canada that still confines and trades in cetaceans is Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., where they have the last orca in captivity, dozens of belugas, as well as dolphins and porpoises. Marineland has had recent troubles, too, after authorities laid animal-cruelty charges against the park for alleged mistreatment of land animals.
The more we understand about belugas and other cetaceans in the wild, the more apparent it becomes that their biological and social needs cannot be met in captivity. As Dalhousie University marine mammal expert Hal Whitehead notes, "We know that they are intensely social mammals with complex and lengthy migrations, and that they use a whole bunch of different habitats in different times of the year, and that they are acoustic communicators. There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that."
Yet the Vancouver Aquarium's response to Qila's and Aurora's deaths reveals an aquarium industry that is deaf to these legitimate concerns. In the wake of Qila's death, aquarium chief executive officer John Nightingale coldly urged the public "not to think about belugas as if they were people," and in a series of aggressive tweets, the aquarium has accused peaceful protesters of harassment and intimidation.
The aquarium defends cetacean exhibits by pointing to their alleged educational value and the role they may play in sparking curiosity and inspiring humans to protect wild habitats and populations. This is superficially appealing, but when you dig deeper, there is little evidence that zoos and aquariums have a meaningful and lasting educational impact or that they spark social change. Recent documentaries such as Planet Earth and Blackfish show there are better ways to capture the public's attention when it comes to the lives of animals and the current state of our planet. More fundamentally, we shouldn't use whales and other cetaceans as tools for education, while denying them the basic conditions needed for a good life.
Whether aquariums like it or not, the end of cetacean captivity may soon be at hand in Canada. Senators recently voted on a groundbreaking bill to ban whale and dolphin captivity. Bill S-203 will be studied by a Senate committee next, and if it becomes law, it will be a criminal offence to keep cetaceans in captivity.
Ultimately, whales and dolphins are complex creatures that deserve good lives in the wild. They must be valued as individuals, not simply for their entertainment or education value, and it's time for us to grant these majestic animals the mercy of freedom.