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Marine mammals in captivity

Marine mammals are fascinating animals that attract the attention of large crowds at aquariums in zoos and marine parks across Canada. Despite the enjoyment many get out of having the opportunity to see such creatures up close, the aquarium is a very different environment from the natural environment of these large and beautiful animals, and causes them to suffer physically, psychologically, and mentally.

Marine mammals are animals that are dependent on the sea for food and spend the majority of their time in or near the sea. Since 1956 when Canada’s first public aquarium – the Vancouver Aquarium – opened, marine mammals in captivity have delighted millions of Canadians and have been marketed as educational and entertaining.

The whales and dolphins, known as cetaceans, are housed in cement aquariums very different from their natural habitat. The most commonly kept cetaceans are killer whales, beluga whales, and dolphins.

In the wild killer whales, also known as orcas, live in pods of two to fifty whales and swim up to 100 miles in a day and dive to depths of 500 feet. Some killer whales stay with their families for life as they travel in pods and sometimes join other pods for hunting or socializing. They prefer deep water and usually spend 10 to 20 per cent of their time at the surface. Each pod has its own dialect for communicating.

In captivity, the killer whale is very limited, unable to swim the lengths and dive to the depths they do in the wild. In an aquarium they will spend up to 50 per cent of their time at the surface, which is probably the reason they sometimes suffer from dorsal fin collapse. Dorsal fin collapse is the result of gravity pulling on the fin when it does not have the support of the water.

The chlorine can also cause skin and eye problems for cetaceans and the sonar clicks used in the wild are not as effective. Whales end up swimming in circles with little stimulation, suffering psychologically, mentally and physical. There is a high mortality rate both for whales captured from the wild and those born in captivity.

Like killer whales, belugas travel hundreds of miles in the wild. Constrained in an aquarium the swim in circular patterns, unable to live and swim naturally. They too form social bonds and swim and live in pods with other beluga whales, which is not possible in captivity.

All cetaceans have a unique set of behaviours that includes foraging, breaching, and fluke waving. Foraging refers to the hunt for food, breaching involves leaping clear out of the water, and fluke waving is the unique raising of the tail vertically out of the water. These behaviours are difficult, if not impossible, for whales and dolphins to perform in captivity.

The Vancouver Aquarium and Ontario’s Marineland are currently the only aquariums in Canada that house killer whales, beluga whales, and dolphins. The West Edmonton Mall purchased four dolphins in 1995 but all except one died and the remaining one was transferred to Florida in 2004. This was necessary because dolphins are social creatures and suffer mentally and psychologically if they are kept in isolation.

While many aquariums and marine areas claim education as a key reason to keep marine mammals in captivity, little educational purpose is served by keeping these animals in an unnatural environment. In Canada, the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums is responsible for overseeing and promoting husbandry standards for animals in zoos and aquariums CAZA has developed a code of ethics for marine mammals in aquariums and while CFHS recognizes the importance of this, we maintain that marine mammals should not be kept in captivity.

The Canadian Council on Animal Care is currently developing extensive regulations for the care and requirements for marine mammals in captivity. CFHS opposes keeping cetaceans and polar bears in captivity because the needs of such large complicated creatures cannot possibly be properly met in an aquarium.

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