A whale of a dilemma

Right now I am reading “The Killer Whale who changed the world” by Mark Leiren-Young , which tells the story of the first orca, or killer whale, that was captured live and kept in captivity for a brief period before she died. Knowing full well that it would be an emotional journey for me, I predictably encountered the first heartbreak moment about 50 pages in, as “Hound Dog” was led into Vancouver harbor with a harpoon lodged in its back and its mother following at a safe distance. (The juvenile was first thought to be male, but treated as female for its short time in captivity. After death ‘she’ was confirmed to be ‘he’ after all). In 1964, when this event happened, orcas were considered extremely dangerous, thought to attack every living being in sight just for the sheer pleasure of killing. “Moby Doll”, as the young orca was later named, changed our attitudes by his gentle demeanor towards her captors, and through the subsequent knowledge we have gained about these magnificent creatures since getting to know them ‘personally’.

I started reading this just as two beluga whales died at the Vancouver Aquarium. One was Aurora, who was the last beluga in captivity to have been captured in the wild. She died a mere 9 days after her daughter Qira, born in captivity 21 years ago died under similar circumstances. Their deaths have sparked a debate as to whether or not we should keep whales in captivity.

Many of the arguments for and against keeping whales in captivity are compelling. On the one hand, whales in captivity provide research opportunities that we may not be able to get in the wild, as stated by John Nightingale on CBC Radio’s “Early Edition” on November 29. As a scientist I have some sympathy for this argument – I have been at the receiving end of public opposition even with insect research (it had to do with potential by-catch of vertebrates in pitfall traps), albeit not in a public forum. There is no question that had we not kept whales in captivity, our understanding of these magnificent and intelligent creatures would not be what it is today, and the public’s awareness of them would not have been what it is today. This year (2016) has been a boom year for resident orca reproduction after many years of almost no reproduction at all, and this has been front page news in major media outlets. Contrast this with the pre-Moby Doll era, when killer whales were shot at and considered the scourge of the sea. Paradoxically, the research that has allowed us more insight into cetacean behavior and intelligence is what has made many of us question how we treat them. During my first 10-15 years in Canada (I have been here since 1977), I visited Vancouver Aquarium many times to watch their captive

The orca Lolita doing tricks with one of her trainers at the Miami Sea Aquarium. Attribution: Averette at English Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

orcas, although even then I was disturbed at the sight of these giants in minimal, sterile pools. Orcas are of particular interest because they are huge predatory animals who in the wild roam over large areas in family pods. Predators have always fascinated me, even though I can’t bear watching a prey animal killed, and they seem to fascinate others as well (cf. tiger and lion tamers at circuses for example). A  whale in a concrete tank reminds me of my experiences visiting zoological gardens as a child, watching large felines endlessly walking back and forth behind the bars of their cage. There is something inherently disturbing in watching their pacing, and I remember thinking that even back then. OK, I may have developed that memory over time, but nevertheless the novelty of seeing a tiger or leopard wore off pretty quickly. One should not paint all zoos and aquariums with the same brush, but when public entertainment is the primary purpose, animal welfare suffers. If you have seen the documentary “Blackfish” you’ll know what I mean! (If you haven’t, and you can stomach it, you should).

One purpose of scientific study is to advance civilization. In terms of large mammals we have largely done just that. Yes, there are zoos around still, but they increasingly move toward displays that take animal welfare into account first, and the ease with which visitors can watch the captives second. They also focus on breeding programs for endangered species, although this may be more of a PR issue than something truly valuable in many cases. The San Diego Wild Animal Park is a case in point – in some of their displays you may not even see the animals at times because they have been provided with a quasi-natural environment where they can hide from human eyes. One of the emerging trends one can detect in research on cognitive function in various animals is that they appear much more advanced than we have previously thought. What was once thought to be human characteristics, such as tool use, self recognition, language, etc., are increasingly discovered in numerous animals. It is quite apparent to me that most mammals form emotional bonds, at least with their offspring and relatives. Elephants are well known for their strong emotional connections and long memory. Recent TV programs I have watched (yes, I watch more than I should) add some surprising animals to that group, e.g., rhinos and harbour seals. The argument that animals don’t suffer the way we do simply does not hold up anymore. A particularly disturbing chapter of the effects of captivity is the story of Tilikum, a bull orca, who was captured off Iceland and has since been moved numerous times. Like all captive bull orcas, his dorsal fin is collapsed to one side, and he has suffered abuse both from other orcas and his human captors. As a result, he has been involved in three human deaths, and was himself near death about 6 months ago due to a presumed bacterial infection.  Anyway, my point is that as we learn more and more about animals, we should adjust how we treat them. Therefore, I think that it follows that it is time to change how we interact with cetaceans. Keeping them in concrete pools just doesn’t cut it anymore!

At the same time as research increases our knowledge, nature programs on television have changed the landscape a lot as footage get increasingly sophisticated. For me, after watching a program on television about some animal, I don’t feel an urge to go to a zoo, but rather to see these animals in their natural environment. For the most part this is not possible, but it is questionable if I can gain more knowledge about animals by watching them in a cage, rather than on television. As our knowledge increases, the return on ‘investment’ in research decreases, making the educational argument less compelling (to me). I am a self-confessed bleeding heart when it comes to animals (heck, I find it difficult to kill an insect for scientific purposes these days), so it is highly probable I am not representing a majority view. However, there is an increasing interest in eco-tourism, which with respect to whales is evidenced by the numerous whale watching tours available around Vancouver Island.  Whale watching may have its own issues, however; I

Whale watching boat racing toward J-pod just north of the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. This was one of five boats. By law, they have to stay 100 m from the whales.

recently watched as five different whale watching tours descended like vultures on the J-pod (which incidentally was Moby Doll’s pod) just outside Tsawwassen. There is pressure on the tour operators to deliver, which may not be in the best interest of the whales as they are likely to get harassed more often than not.

I doubt that this issue will be resolved any time soon. There is no question that dolphins and their kin provide a huge draw for aquariums. People like watching animals do tricks. Vancouver Aquarium moved away from the tricks-for-entertainment genre a long time ago, and moved to a model where they had their animals display natural behaviours while explaining why they did this in nature. That was a step in the right direction, but now it is time to take the next major step, which is to stop confining whales to tanks.




About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
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