Vancouver could host spectacular whale sanctuary, says expert

There are sanctuaries for elephant, chimps and bears, but none for whales and dolphins. Dr. Lori Marino says an ocean sanctuary is the right place for rescued and retired aquarium cetaceans, and Vancouver would be a spectacular site.

Photos from Lori Marino and Creative Commons
Dr. Lori Marino, the Utah-based executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, and belugas in the wild (from Arctic Watch).

Dr. Lori Marino wants to see an orca sanctuary established in North America — and Vancouver could be a great location.

A cetacean sanctuary would see marine mammals that cannot be released into the wild live out their lives in large sea pens, rather than between concrete walls.

“Vancouver might be the site of something really spectacular,” said Marino, the Utah-based executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and a former senior lecturer at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. 

There are currently no sanctuaries for whales, dolphins or porpoises. 

“That stands in contrast with the fact that there are sanctuaries for elephants and chimpanzees and large cats and bears, et cetera,” Marino said. “Without a sanctuary, there is no place for captured cetaceans to go if we were to successfully get them out of these marine parks.”

The scientist and animal advocate wants to spark conversation about all the factors that would need to be considered in establishing a sanctuary. She says Vancouver, the San Juan Island and Seattle could make a great location, close to the native homes of whales that are currently in captivity.

Marino, an expert in cetacean and primate neuroscience and intelligence is just one of the international experts who will speak at the Compassionate Conservation Conference at UBC, July 28 to 31.

The conference aims to see animal welfare incorporated into conservation practices and policies. The Born Free Foundation, an international charity that works to keep wildlife in the wild, and the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, sponsored and coordinated the conference, which is hosted by the Animal Welfare Program at UBC.

Chris Draper, programmes manager, captive wild animals/science, for the Born Free Foundation in the U.K., says animal welfare isn’t always central to conservation.

Marino says rescued cetaceans ideally should be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. A whale born in captivity should live in an ocean pen and not be trained to perform tricks.

Marino knows the Vancouver Aquarium runs conservation programs.

“That’s very different from a sanctuary,” she said, “where the priority would be the welfare of the animals because you don’t have to sell tickets and have people come through turnstiles.”

Marino would like the Vancouver Aquarium to phase out captive breeding and move towards a sanctuary model.

“There are number of animals that they have that have been ‘rehabilitated.’ It’s not clear why they haven’t been released,” she said. “I’d like them to spend more time on real rescue and real rehab and real release than on the shows that they do.”

The former Vancouver Park Board failed to pass an anti-breeding bylaw before new commissioners were elected last November.

“To continue breeding captive animals is just counterproductive,” Marino said. “On an ethical level you’re actually creating the problem. It’s one thing to say, well, we have these individuals now. It’s another thing to actually force them to create more.”

She says much breeding is accomplished through artificial insemination.

“Inseminating animals that are too young to have babies, who haven’t chosen their mates and just forcing them into this reproductive cycle that’s totally unnatural,” Marino said.

Draper says its difficult to legislate against breeding with what are, in effect, privately owned animals.

“I firmly believe that it would be in the aquarium’s best interest to listen to public opinion and listen to expert opinion and not just listen to the opinion of other aquariums across North America and the world, who are obviously of a similar mind,” he said.

Supporters of the Vancouver Aquarium argued during the ban-on-breeding bylaw debate that the facility brings a million visitors and millions of tourist dollars to Vancouver each year.

But Marino noted the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California operates without captive dolphins or whales.

“It is probably the most popular aquarium in the country, if not the world, and what the Monterey aquarium has is the respect of the public,” she said.

Visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium see sharks that are being rehabilitated and other animals that can’t be released.

Marino says tourists visit elephant sanctuaries knowing they might not spy an ear or a trunk in the vast sanctuary space. But, she said, the public could learn about the inhabitants of a cetacean sanctuary at a visitors centre. Animal welfare would need to come first, but there could be scheduled visits certain hours of certain days.

“In a way that’s less intrusive than standing right at the edge of a pool,” she said.

She’s focusing on orcas first because they statistically fair the worst in captivity.

Orcas in the wild have an average life expectancy of 30 to 50 years, she said, whereas the median age of orcas in captivity is nine.

The last orca at the Vancouver Aquarium died in 2001, after being shipped to Sea World in San Diego, at age 25.

Draper says it’s a coincidence that Vancouver was chosen as the second site of a Compassionate Conservation Conference, a city where the debate over the breeding of cetaceans in captivity has recently raged.

The inaugural conference happened at the University of Oxford in 2010 and Vancouver was chosen as the first North American site because of the work of the Animal Welfare Program at UBC.

Draper says the first conference met “an outpouring of relief” from experts, conservation practitioners and academics who yearned for a forum to discuss their shared concerns.

The multidisciplinary conference will also see sessions on the conservation and animal welfare impacts of global wildlife tourism, zoos and compassionate conservation and coyotes.

For more information, see compassionateconservation.net.

The Vancouver Aquarium did not respond to interview requests.

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