Captivity and Morality

This is a long one so you may want to grab a coffee.  Or a sedative.

The first phase of the Vancouver Aquarium opened just over a week ago on Friday June 13.  Phase One is a 55,000 square foot expansion space which cost $120 million dollars. With over 50,000 animals, it is also Canada’s largest aquarium. Phase Two is scheduled to begin in 2015 and is to feature a larger whale and dolphin pool for marine mammals (otherwise known as “cetaceans”).

Although the project expansion and renovation project was approved back in 2006, the second phase of the plan is now under review by the same board who approved it.  According to Aaron Jasper, the Park Board Commissioner, the review was set in motion, “at the prompting of two Vision Vancouver commissioners…who said they are influenced by the movie Blackfish.” (Blackfish is a documentary centered around an orca named Tilikum, an animal that was taken from the wild and has been held in captivity by SeaWorld’s various locations over the past 30 years.  I highly recommend it – it’s on Netflix.)

According to the above-linked article, the Mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, has publicly opposed keeping whales in captivity and biologist Jane Goodall has also criticized the aquarium’s cetacean program. Politicians in Vancouver, for the most part, seem to be saying very little on the matter either way, including Industry Minister James Moore, who attended the opening and stated in regards to the issue of whether whales and dolphins should be kept in captivity: “That’s for the aquarium and the City of Vancouver to work out.”

When 769 residents in B.C. were recently polled about the issue of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, over half of all residents were not even aware there was an issue and the other half were, “split down the middle.”  Half believe that whales and dolphins kept in captivity help scientific research and the other half were concerned that whales and dolphins suffered while in captivity.

The Aquarium’s President and C.E.O., John Nightingale, is obviously concerned about this potential change in plans and at least doesn’t appear to be taking the issue lightly.  However, his perspective is from that of a business and his concern is that forbidding whales and dolphins “could seriously damage the aquarium’s reputation as a world leader in marine research.”  It was only as recently as 1996 that the aquarium even agreed to no longer capture wild whales for research in captivity, and that was only after years of campaigning by animals rights activists.

As someone who grew up going to theme parks, going to zoos and going to circuses, I can say that the opportunity to experience different animals up close is something I can still remember. And enjoyed too, well into my adulthood.  But that’s because no one ever presented the other side to me.  No one ever said, “You know, Nic, I know zoos and aquariums are fun for you but it’s not always for the animals.  They are sometimes taken from their mothers and their homes in the wild. And if they aren’t, they are forced to breed their families in cages and enclosed spaces, never getting to experience their natural habitat or true freedom.”  My parents weren’t cruel people – they were ignorant, as so many adults remain today about the real day-to-day lives of animals in captivity.  When the crowds leave, and the lights go off and the staff head home, these animals are left alone in their cages or pools with nothing to do but circle, circle, circle, until it all starts over again the next day.

Vancouver’s Aquarium is not marketed as a theme park or a zoo but a museum.  A museum implies education and research – things we’re told that are good, right? Especially in the name of science.  Many scientists who have in the past and will continue to benefit from the research conducted at Vancouver’s Aquarium confirm that the ability to study marine mammals in captivity is essential to important research of cetaceans, and “crucial to understanding issues affecting wild populations.”

Here’s what I don’t understand: what in the hell does studying animals in captivity teach us about animals in the wild?  If you put a human in a cage but still provided their basics needs like food, shelter and mating, wouldn’t the “results” of their social and mental behaviour be different from a human who was allowed the freedom to acquire those same basic needs on their own?  I fail to see the “science” behind studying animals in captivity.  The only thing it would seem to ultimately prove is the differences in behaviour between the same provisions extended in captivity and the same provisions supplied in the wild.  And, as films like Blackfish demonstrate, we clearly see what those are.

The Vancouver Aquarium also prides itself on being a “marine mammal rescue group” and according to this article, “is the only aquarium in Canada allowed to keep cetaceans that are too injured to be returned to the wild.”  How are they being injured if they’re in captivity in the first place?  What about the rest of the fish and sea creatures that are taken from the wild for the museum and get no public attention because they are not deemed as intelligent as dolphins and whales or are much smaller in size and it’s assumed that they wouldn’t know the difference between a tank and an ocean?  Are they being injured while captured and then “rehabilitated” in this state-of-the-art research facility?

Scientists in the above article also claim that captivity is necessary and “gaining importance” as “oceans grow more polluted and crowded with man-made noise and…the effects of climate change are being felt.”  Sooo, because the world is a nasty place full of growing problems and potential dangers, it’s best to keep living beings in an enclosed space all day, cooped-up in one area, never given a chance to explore, adapt or survive in their natural habitat?

What’s also worrying is some of the wording relating to “knowledge gained from captive cetaceans” – meaning conducting experiments – including but not limited to:

  • “Energetics” or the study of the food energy requirements of animals under various conditions.

Well that’s pretty broad. That could mean anything from food deprivation on a rainy day to overfeeding on a sunny day.  Given that animals in captivity cannot hunt for their food and depend solely on their human captors for sustenance, I would really like to know the specifics of what the fuck that actually means for the animal.

The Vancouver Aquarium would have to be breeding whales and dolphins in captivity if they are no longer allowed to capture them from the wild.  This often means inbreeding and artificial insemination, two things that would never happen in the wild.  So again, I fail to see how captivity is supposed to mirror their natural habitat.

Let’s not confuse a museum with an animal sanctuary.

And what of the general public and their opportunity to see animals they would normally never get to see, potentially creating an interest in a variety of different animals?  I think about that one a lot. Here’s where I’ve landed on that one: I’ve never seen a kangaroo or a grizzly bear in person but I can still appreciate them and learn about them through books, magazines and the Internet. So I think the same can be said for dolphins, killer whales, giraffes and every other animal we’ve paid to be spectators of.  If I really, really, really have a burning desire to see a dolphin, I’ll learn to scuba dive and go hang out in the ocean. If only we taught the next generation, “Hey, if you want to see that animal up close or study them, maybe one day you can. But it wouldn’t be fair that they come to you – you have to go to them.” What a shift that would be for humanity in how we view and treat animals.

I believe that housing animals in captivity is simply another form of animal experimentation made profitable by another form of human consumption.  It is cruel, unnecessary and usually the conclusions lead to nothing more than the recommendation that further “research” needs to be done.

In Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, which I’m currently reading, the first quarter of the book is all about animal experimentation.  While reading the opinions of scientists in support of the Vancouver Aquarium, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between how those scientists refer to animals and research in the same way scientists in a lab for a cosmetics company refer to theirs. The conducted tests are very clinical in their wording, almost as if they were working on a car. The animal is only ever referred to as “the subject” and “the experiment” is referred to as “research” – nice and broad and detached from an actual living being. Most scientists (though certainly not all) do not see animal experimentation as a moral question; it is completely irrelevant to them whether the “subject” thinks, feels or experiences pain unless it’s part of their research. Even then, it’s just a result or conclusion, not an actual ethical dilemma.

I’ll leave you with something from Peter Singer’s book, when he talks about how various legislators and groups often go about addressing the moral issue of animal experimentation, which I feel applies to the issue of animal captivity at Vancouver’s Aquarium:

“Since legislators do not have the time to acquire expertise in these fields, they rely on what the “experts” tell them.  But this is a moral question, not a scientific one, and the “experts” usually have an interest in the continuation of experimentation or else are so imbued with the ethic of furthering knowledge that they cannot detach themselves from this stance and make a critical examination of what their colleagues do.”

Further on in that same paragraph:

“Legislators (and by extension I would say the public since they pay admission to enter live-animal museums and zoos) must learn that when discussing animal experimentation (or animal captivity) they have to treat these organizations, and also the medical, veterinary, psychological, and biological associations, as they would treat General Motors and Ford when discussing air pollution.”


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