Evictions are all the rage in Vancouver these days. The city tried to evict some homeless people from a park, leading “some members of a local First Nation” to try to evict the city from, well, the city. Meanwhile, concerned citizens have been trying to evict the resident cetaceans – two beluga whales and two bottlenose dolphins – from the Vancouver Aquarium, or at least force the Aquarium to eventually “phase out” its cetacean exhibits.
Still, opponents maintain the root problem remains: Sentient marine mammals on display for human entertainment.
“To be quite blunt, what [the Vancouver Aquarium] really teaches children is that it’s OK to mistreat these animals,” Paul Spong, a whale biologist who began his career at the Aquarium, told the Vancouver Courier.
To contend that displaying “sentient” marine mammals for human entertainment is inherently problematic strikes me as flawed at three levels. First, some animal species actually do pretty well in captivity, as discussed in a very cogent review by Georgia Mason of the University of Guelph. Bottlenose dolphins thrive, according to Mason’s paper and other information I’ve been able to find, and belugas at least seem to get by. The unfortunately widespread notion that all captive cetaceans are inevitably miserable is at best highly speculative and larded with a heavy dose of anthropomorphism.
Second, aquariums have tremendous value as venues for science, education and the maintenance of species that may not be with us for too much longer in the wild. The Vancouver Aquarium produces its share of serious cetacean research, some of which would be impossible without access to captive animals – check out, for example, the work of Valeria Vergara on beluga vocalizations. Seeing whales on TV can be fun and informative, and watching a fluke break the water from the deck of a boat is pure magic, but aquariums allow a degree of proximity that would otherwise be almost impossible. Not everyone will find that experience particularly edifying or stimulating, but there’s probably no better way to get people interested in learning about cetaceans and ensuring that they don’t succumb to extinction. Even if captivity is hellish for bottlenoses and belugas – and I don’t think it is, particularly – the payoff in research, public engagement and species-level conservation surely outweighs the suffering of a few individuals.
Finally, the purported sentience of cetaceans only goes so far. Beluga whales might be smarter than dogs and cows, but they aren’t going to start quoting Hamlet or solving integral calculus problems. Even leaving aside worthy objectives like education, conservation and research, why exactly should we deny ourselves and our children the sheer delight of seeing cetaceans up close and admiring their strength, grace and agility? We shouldn’t need to believe that Yahweh explicitly granted us dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air in order to recognize ourselves as beings of a different order from fish, fowl and even cetaceans. Capturing a dolphin and enticing it to do tricks for appreciative audiences, or even reducing it to dolphin-burgers, is not at all like capturing or devouring Genevieve from the house down the street. Any minds that are being driven bonkers at the Vancouver Aquarium, except perhaps those of harried parents fielding a demand to stay and watch the sea lion show just one more time, are too rudimentary to merit much concern.