Death of Two Belugas at Vancouver Aquarium Heightens Debate about Ethics of Captivity

Death of Two Belugas at Vancouver Aquarium Heightens Debate about Ethics of Captivity

The recent deaths of the Vancouver Aquarium’s last two beluga whales have caused notable backlash from animal activists across the country, who continue to challenge the permissibility of cetacean captivity. The aquarium’s 30-year-old beluga, Aurora, died on November 25th after over a week of illness, with symptoms including abdominal cramping and a loss of appetite.1,2 Nine days prior, Aurora’s calf, Qila, died following nearly identical symptoms.1,2 However, the cause surrounding the deaths is still unknown. “I know there's a lot of questions about what could have caused this double mortality,” Lance Barrett, head of the cetacean research program stated. “I can't speculate on that.”1

Dozens of animal welfare groups have responded to the incident, urging reconsideration of the policies permitting the captivity of marine animals. These groups, including PETA, have expressed concern over the aquarium’s ability to safely and ethically care for marine animals.3 Lifeforce, an ecological awareness organization, issued a statement calling for a ban on capturing whales.2 Meanwhile, the Vancouver Humane Society urged for this ban to extend to all cetaceans, not just whales, suggesting the Vancouver Aquarium instead focus on rescue, rehabilitation, and release.2

    Many Vancouverites have expressed views both for and against cetacean captivity. In response, the Vancouver Park Board chair, Sarah Kirby-Yung, proposed a city-wide referendum which would allow the public to vote on whether Vancouver should allow the captivity of whales.1 Still, in recent years, there has been an increased push to acknowledge the rights of animals held in captivity. “Public sentiment appears to be changing,” said Ms. Kirby-Yung, “And I think it's important that we have a public dialogue about it."1

    Despite the public controversy following the deaths of the belugas, the Vancouver Aquarium has defended its actions and mission in keeping cetaceans captive. In a public statement, the aquarium commented that its practices have inspired visitors and helped in numerous studies regarding the physiology and hearing capabilities of the animals.2 Additionally, the aquarium stated that its cetacean program has brought patrons educational value, thereby encouraging people to donate to research and protection efforts.4 Through the program, the aquarium claims it has played a significant and crucial role in conservation efforts.5

    Despite these arguments, many animal rights groups remain unconvinced that the achievements of the aquarium’s cetacean program outweigh its potential harm to wildlife. Cetaceans have complex needs, both socially and biologically, that some experts feel cannot be properly met in captivity. “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, reports Hal Whitehead, marine mammal expert at Dalhousie University.4 “There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.”4

With growing evidence regarding the needs of cetaceans, many have raised concerns over putting the educational and entertainment purposes of cetacean exhibits ahead of the animals’ overall wellbeing. In light of the incident at the Vancouver Aquarium, the Vancouver Humane Society and Zoocheck, a Canadian-based wildlife protection charity, published a report entitled “A Crumbling Case for Cetacean Captivity?” to determine how much of an impact the aquarium has had on research in the field.6 The groups determined that keeping marine animals in captivity as a means to learn about and conserve them was not a strong enough justification for removing the animals from their natural habitat.5 Additionally, the study concluded that most research can be completed without the need for captivity, as demonstrated through many scientific studies involving wild cetaceans, compared to 13 studies done in the past 30 years on cetaceans living at the Vancouver Aquarium.5

Jule Woodyer, Zoocheck campaigns director, responded to her own group’s findings, noting, “Given that the biological and behavioural needs of whales and dolphins cannot be met in an aquarium and there is little, if any, value in the education or conservation programs associated with keeping cetaceans on exhibition, it is time to empty the tanks.”6 Ms. Woodyer also emphasized that most data collected on captive cetaceans is not applied to their wild counterparts due to the differences in behavior and lifestyle between captive and wild animals.5 Further, the study found that there was no real way to measure if the aquarium’s efforts actually aided in conservation.5 The findings of the study demonstrate the increased push from animal rights activists to place a full ban on the captivity of cetaceans.

While there remains debate about the benefits of keeping animals in captivity, recent years have seen an increased demand from the public, and from animal activist groups, to reform aquariums and serve the best interests of animals according to their biological nature. This shift in public opinion has been seen through recent changes in aquarium operations and governmental policy; according to marine mammal scientist Dr. Naomi Rose, in just the past few years alone, “Ontario banned the possession of orcas, the National Aquarium announced plans to retire its dolphins to a seaside sanctuary, [and] SeaWorld pledged to end the breeding of its captive orcas,” among an array of other efforts.6

With the possibility of legislation changes to block the import of cetaceans and limit their captivity all together, the Vancouver Aquarium may soon follow suit.



  1. “2nd beluga whale dies at Vancouver Aquarium in less than two weeks.” CBC News. Published November 25, 2016.

  2. Givetash, Linda. “Animal welfare groups criticize Vancouver Aquarium after second beluga whale death.” The Globe and Mail. Published November 26, 2016.

  3. Little, Simon. “PETA and dozens of groups call for ban on cetacean captivity at Vancouver Aquarium.” News Talk 980 CKNW. Published December 7, 2016.

  4. Labchuk, Camille and Hooley, Dan. “The needs of smart and social animals cannot be met in captivity.” The Globe and Mail. Published December 8, 2016.

  5. Kretzel, Lasia. “Captive whale research doesn't increase wild conservation, study finds.” News 1130. Published December 14, 2016.

  6. “Report challenges claims that keeping whales and dolphins captive is justifiable.” CNW. Published December 14, 2016.

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