Renowned conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall has entered the growing controversy over the Vancouver Aquarium's beluga program, penning a letter to the park board saying that on-site cetacean breeding is "no longer defensible by science."
In her letter, Goodall says the high mortality rates of such programs and the complex social and sensory lives of the animals are reasons to end the program.
"In captivity, these highly vocal and complex communicators are forced to live in a low-sensory environment, which is unable to fully meet the needs of their physical and emotional worlds."
Aquarium director, John Nightingale expressed surprise at the letter's contents.
"We don't think Doctor Goodall has ever been to the Aquarium as far as any of us can tell," he said.
"And she is clearly operating on information provided by the activist community. And so our work today is to reach back to her and explain to her what's going on... and that there are two points of view."
Clint Wright, Vancouver Aquarium general manager and senior vice-president animal operations, responded with an emailed statement.
"The Vancouver Aquarium has the greatest respect for Jane Goodall but her information may be incomplete," the email states. "The current science is clear that beluga whales live as long, if not longer, while in human care. Scientific and behavioural evidence shows that cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium are content and thriving."
Read the full text of Jane Goodall's letter to the Vancouver Parks Board
Dear Park Board Chairman and Commissioners,
The capture, breeding and keeping of cetaceans world-wide has come under increasing public scrutiny due to recent high-profile stories being released from industry insiders. The scientific community is also responding to the captivity of these highly social and intelligent species as we now know more than ever, about the complex environments such species require to thrive and achieve good welfare. Those of us who have had the fortunate opportunity to study wild animals in their natural settings where family, community structure and communication form a foundation for these animals’ existence, know the implications of captivity on such species. I understand the Vancouver Park Board and the Vancouver Aquarium became industry leaders in 1996, when an agreement was made to not allow the keeping of cetaceans caught from the wild after September 16th of that year (with the exception of endangered species or rehabilitation animals that could not be released). However, the current permission of Vancouver Aquarium cetacean breeding programs on-site, and at SeaWorld with belugas on loan, is no longer defensible by science. This is demonstrated by the high mortality rates evident in these breeding programs and by the ongoing use of these animals in interactive shows as entertainment.
The idea that certain cetaceans “do better” in captivity than others is also misleading, as belugas, dolphins and porpoises are highly social animals which can travel in large pods and migrate long distances. In captivity, these highly vocal and complex communicators are forced to live in a low-sensory environment, which is unable to fully meet the needs of their physical and emotional worlds. As society at large and the scientific community now reflect on the keeping of highly cognitive species like primates, elephants, and cetaceans in entertainment and research, I ask the Vancouver Park Board and the Vancouver Aquarium to do the same. The phasing out of such cetacean programs is the natural progression of human-kind’s evolving view of our non-human animal kin. I hope the Vancouver Park Board and the Vancouver Aquarium will be a leader in compassionate conservation on this issue, as you have done before,