Vancouver wants rescue, rehabilitation and release ─ and a home for those that cannot go back

I am just sick of the hate-fueled animal rights campaign of lies against the Vancouver Aquarium, especially when it comes to the marine mammal rescue & rehabilitation program and keeping non-releasable animals in human care. While the vast majority of the Vancouver public fully support the Aquarium’s efforts and don’t want animals euthanized or needlessly moved to other facilities, there are some, like animal rights activist and ex-marine mammal trainer Steve Huxter, who don’t see eye to eye with the Aquarium’s leaders.  He published an open letter on Park Board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon’s blog, in which he promotes himself as an “advisor to the Whale Sanctuary Project” and goes on a tirade against the Aquarium, accusing its CEO as well as rescue and rehabilitation veteran Dr. Martin Haulena of “exaggerated threats and veiled lies in order to manipulative (sic) public opinion”, without specifying what those might be.
So Steve is an “advisor to the Whale Sanctuary Project” ─ a project which needs animals to fill its yet-to-be financed, yet-to-be-approved and yet-to-be-built sea pens, obviously. And perhaps Steve will find a job there, too? They will need animal trainers like him to care for the cetaceans since the daily routine of those animals would be exactly the same as it is at, say, the Vancouver Aquarium today. The animals would still be fed frozen fish, they would still learn the exact same behaviours (“tricks”) that they learn at the Aquarium, because in the absence of a need to forage, travel or avoid predators, none of those whales and dolphins would move a flipper unless encouraged to do so. That’s in their nature as every activity burns energy which all their instincts tell them is something to avoid. The environment animals would be housed in, a sea pen enclosure, could pose harm to wild populations and might become a death trap for the animals inside if exposed to severe weather ─ and thanks to climate change, the Pacific Northwest has seen quite a lot of that lately. And yes, they would charge admission for people to see the animals in those sea pens.
What the Whale Sanctuary Project is proposing is a tremendous waste of money, if they ever find financial backing for it. It would divert funds, staff & volunteer resources and public attention away from the challenges our changing ocean ecosystems are facing ─ and the millions of animals that are dying from made-made climate change, pollution, over-fishing and mismanagement of wild populations. This would be nothing but a dangerous experiment of the kind that killed Keiko the killer whale, who, curiously, was under the care of people like Naomi Rose, who is now also serving on the board of the Utah-based “Whale Sanctuary Project” ─ the same project that Huxter is lobbying for.
Just look at the rescued and rehabilitated animals that already live at the Vancouver Aquarium today. The proposed sea pen would not accommodate multiple species with varying environmental needs. There are no environmental controls in the Pacific Ocean that Chester needs to be comfortable, for instance. There is no way to flush the ocean floor if waste from multiple animals accumulates and is not washed out by the tides (which is likely to happen as strong tides would tear the sea pen apart). Veterinary care would be challenging at best, even for well-trained animals. And a sea pen of the size proposed would not just be difficult and very expensive to build, it would also be hard to keep intact and eat much more money than a traditional aquarium habitat made from concrete.
The animal rights agenda that Steve Huxter is trying to promote here wants to end all ownership and any and all use of all animals: whether it is farm animals, animals on display in zoos and aquariums or even pets. That is something the public opinion has very mixed views on. But animal rights should never be confused with animal welfare, which Huxter is confusingly throwing into the mix. Animal welfare promotes proper care and management of animals, to keep them from harm and ensure their well-being. If that is the goal, then a sea pen facility won’t do the job any better than an aquarium does today.
All the Vancouver Aquarium is asking the Park Board to do right now is to provide them with the means to continue their marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation efforts and to enable the Aquarium to give whales, porpoises and dolphins that Fisheries and Oceans Canada deems non-releasable a home. That would be animals that are either too young at the time of their stranding to have acquired essential survival skills (foraging, predator detection and avoidance, social skills) or those too injured (impaired hearing, injuries preventing them from feeding on their own or impairing their movement) to make it in the wild.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada would never order the rescue and rehabilitation attempt of animals that it knew the Aquarium could not provide for; those animals would be euthanized, like Daisy, whose fate of a life in human care was sealed when she stranded as a fully-dependent neonate, or Chester, who was also still dependent on his mother and peers for survival, once his group could not be located despite an extensive search.
Euthanasia of animals that could otherwise survive, if they went through intensive care and rehabilitation, is something that is the norm in some of the countries Huxter listed as having banned cetaceans in human care, or where keeping cetaceans is so cumbersome due to regulations that it is not economically viable. The United Kingdom is one such example, where harbour porpoise like Daisy or dolphins strand very frequently and are routinely euthanized following a re-float attempt because no facilities for long-term treatment and care exist. In the Netherlands, the only facility that provided this kind of care, SOS Dolfijn, recently gave up its facility belonging to an aquarium next door ─ and while they are struggling to find a replacement, harbour porpoise like Jack, Daisy and Levi are being euthanized because there are no options for long-term intensive care.
As the Aquarium’s veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena keeps pointing out, the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is an acute intensive care facility, not a long-term rehab facility and not a home for animals. Chester could not be treated at the rescue centre at some point as he outgrew the small cetacean pool the rescue centre operates on leased land provided by Port Metro Vancouver. They also lacked environmental controls to keep him comfortable, so he had to be moved to the Vancouver Aquarium for the remainder of his rehabilitation. That option will soon be gone, but then again, DFO would have ordered him euthanized on the beach anyway had the Aquarium not been able to vouch for the best possible care in all scenarios the DFO officers on site anticipated.
The Vancouver public needs to ask itself one question: Does it want cetaceans that live-strand on our coast rescued, cared for and rehabilitated for release, even if they require intensive 24/7 care with people in the water around the clock to keep them alive and help them to recovery, or does it want to see those animals killed on the beach (gunshot to the brain or lethal injection are the two methods used, depending on the size of the animal) instead? And does it want animals that cannot be released to be euthanized or kept in human care?
My answer to those questions follows a simple rationale: Live strandings of cetaceans are on the rise around the world, and even on our coast. Whales, dolphins and porpoises will end up on our beaches, and many of them will have to be taken in for rehabilitation if we want them to survive. Some will have lost their mothers, perhaps in a boat collision, or due to entanglement in a fishing net. Others may have gotten injured or their immune systems, weakened from decades of industrial pollution, may have failed, which may have led to a life-threatening infection. Even others will have been too weak from starvation as depleted fish stocks continue to decline or competition becomes too harsh ─ with their high metabolism, not finding food for a few days can kill a small cetacean like a harbour porpoise very quickly. My point is, many of the animals that strand may do so not because it is the course of nature, but because as mankind we have ruined their homes to the point where they end up on our ocean doorsteps in need of help. And I believe that we have the obligation to intervene, to try our very best to get them up to strength and ready for release, and to provide them a home if that is not an option. Letting them die on the beach, or killing them to satisfy an animal rights agenda that does not want to see them housed under human care? For me, that’s unthinkable.
Marcus Wernicke is a conservationist and environmental activist. He also volunteers at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.