Animal Emotions

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Belugas Don't Belong in Captive Whale Mills

Plans to bring 18 whales to aquariums are scientifically and ethically misguided

An article in today's New York Times reports, "A proposal to import 18 beluga whales for popular interactive park attractions in the United States is drawing fierce opposition from animal rights advocates and others who object to their removal from the wild."

Captivity isn't be good for the whales say world-renowned scientists

I'm pleased there is "fierce opposition" because these amazing beings don't belong in tiny and impoverished water filled cages. What's heartening about the resistance to this inane and misguided proposal is that world-renowned researchers in addition to animal protection advocates also oppose it. Consider what Dr. Hal Whitehead, one of the world's leading marine mammal experts working out of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, says, “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 ... There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.” Furthermore, “many of the processes which are clearly important in the wild can’t flourish, such as the flexible social systems they seem to have, such as the migrations, such as using sounds without having them echoed back at you from concrete a few meters away.”

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Animals don't belong in captive whale mills that offer champagne and strawberries

According to administrators at the Georgia Aquarium these majestic Arctic whales are needed for captive breeding efforts, research, and education. However, these and other magnificent marine mammals are also used for silly and unnatural (some might say stupid) forms of entertainment. Thus, "At least four of the nation’s largest marine parks, including the Georgia Aquarium, invite visitors to don wet suits and pet or be nuzzled by the animals for $140 to $250. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago offers couples, for $450, a romantic wading experience that can culminate in a marriage proposal with Champagne, strawberries and the beluga as a de facto chaperon." Give me a break. How demeaning to these amazing animals. The animals are obvious cash whales who are misused and thoroughly misrepresented to the public. 

There is no evidence (see also) that seeing these or other captive animals will do anything meaningful and long-lasting for educating the public or for the conservation of wild relatives despite what Robert Michaud, who works for the Canadian conservation group called Gremm, claims. MIchaud asserts, “I can make the case that research on these animals in captivity helps animals in the wild” but doesn't say how. He also says he's not a strong defender of keeping animals in captivity and notes “The pool will never be the open ocean.” It seems like a good time for Mr. Michaud to walk his talk and oppose the proposal to bring these whales into tiny pools where they will emotionally suffer. 

Ethics are not considered in the public hearings about this proposal

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will be holding public hearings this coming Friday in Silver Springs, Maryland. Of the more than 4000 comments received on the proposal most are negative. Ethics doesn't factor into the decision that will be handed down early next year. According the Times, "in reaching its decision, the agency will rely mainly on provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that authorize such imports for public display unless the animal was pregnant or nursing when captured, was taken inhumanely or was part of a population that was depleted or endangered. The law also requires, among other things, that the display of the animal serve an educational purpose." There is no evidence that there will be any meaningful educational benefits at all. Sure, people sometimes say going to the zoo or aquarium got them interested in animals, but the important question is do they then go on to do anything for animals in the future. Very few do anything hands-on or make significant monetary contributions for conservation purposes. Current data support this conclusion. 

Please contact NOAA and register your opinion. You can find all the needed information here and you can submit comments electronically here. These whales and many other animals need all the support they can get. 

The teaser image can be found here.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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