Both Vancouver Aquarium belugas die; Marineland of Canada hit with cruelty charges
VANCOUVER, B.C.; NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario––November 25, 2016 was a bad day for both of Canada’s perennially embattled marine mammal parks, the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland of Canada in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
On that day the Ontario SPCA filed five cruelty charges against Marineland of Canada, while the Vancouver Aquarium lost Aurora, 29, the last of its resident beluga whales, just eight days after losing her daughter Qila, 21. Both belugas had been ill for weeks. Necropsies failed to identify the pathogen responsible.
The first beluga whale conceived and born at a Canadian aquarium, Qila in 2008 became also the first beluga born in a Canadian aquarium to give birth to a calf. But the calf, Tiqa, died from pneumonia in 2008.
The Vancouver Aquarium in 1977 was briefly home to the first beluga born in captivity anywhere, Tuaq, whose mother Kavna was pregnant when captured from the wild. Tuaq died four months later from a combination of malnutrition, resulting from failure to nurse successfully, with a bacterial infection. Her short life inspired the 1980 song “Baby Beluga” by the folksinger Raffi Cavoukian. Kavna died in 2012.
The first oceanarium in Canada, opened in 1956, the Vancouver Aquarium in 1964 became the first facility in the world to exhibit an orca whale. The orca, Moby Doll, was harpooned to become the model for the orca sculpture outside the aquarium, toward the end of an era in which both U.S. and Canadian military aircraft often used orcas in the Puget Sound region and belugas in the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers of Quebec for target practice, as supposed threats to fishing.
Expected to arrive dead, Moby Doll instead survived 55 days on display, as by far the biggest attraction the aquarium had ever offered, while his friendly demeanor changed public attitudes toward his species.
Then-director Vancouver Aquarium director Murray Newman acquired four Pacific white-sided dolphins in 1966, added a pair of beluga whales in 1967, and also in 1967 acquired another orca.
For the next 33 years the Vancouver Aquarium displayed all three species, but under current director Jon Nightingale acceded to years of protest and quit keeping orcas in 2000. The last resident Pacific white-sided dolphin died in 2015.
The Vancouver Aquarium still has one porpoise, Daisy, who arrived as a stranding rescue, and owns six of the 33 belugas currently on exhibit elsewhere in North America, but officially has not yet decided whether to recall any.
Altogether, according to Lifeforce founder Peter Hamilton, 21 belugas, 14 Pacific white-sided dolphins, nine orcas, seven narwhals, and a harbor porpoise have died at the Vancouver Aquarium in the 60 years it has operated.
Hamilton led the campaigns that in 1996 and 2011, respectively, closed the adjacent Stanley Park Zoo, the original park attraction, opened in 1888, and the nearby Stanley Park petting zoo. Lifeforce, the Toronto organization ZooCheck, and the Vancouver Humane Society have all urged the Vancouver Parks Board to close the Vancouver Aquarium altogether, as have anthropologist Jane Goodall and Ric O’Barry, campaigning against marine mammal captivity since 1970.
The Vancouver Aquarium beluga deaths came just after the aquarium enjoyed a small amount of positive recognition for hosting sea lion research by University of British Columbia marine biologist David Rosen which confirmed that merely attaching radio tags to sea lions appears to increase their energy expenditure while hunting by 15%.
This finding may have huge implications for researchers working in the wild, who have become increasingly reliant on radio tagging to track their research subjects.
Open Water Research Station at risk
The Rosen finding was released only days after University of British Columbia Marine Mammal Research Unit director Andrew Trites told Michelle Ghoussoub of CBC News that the future of the university’s Open Water Research Station in Port Moody, British Columbia has been jeopardized by loss of grant funding from the U.S. government, which has sustained the facility since 2003.
Trites began doing Steller sea lion research with captive subjects at the Vancouver Aquarium in the mid-1990s, but moved his studies into the wild as soon as he could, to the extent that he could.
Explained Ghoussob, “The station’s “floating lab” concept is unique because it allows the researchers to study the animals in their natural habitat. While the station’s four steller sea lions are kept in open pens, they are taken out into the open water on a daily basis. On some days, the sea lions are transported into the Burrard Inlet in a boat called the ‘steller shuttle.’ The inlet’s deep waters allow them to conduct underwater diving studies that are impossible in the confines of an aquarium.”
Steller sea lions
Trites’ investigations have focused on finding out why Steller sea lions along the British Columbia and Alaska coasts have declined to about 20% of their numbers of circa 1975.
Much larger than California sea lions, Steller sea lions struggled even as the California sea lion population grew rapidly for several decades along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Both species are declining now, coinciding with warmer seas and fewer fish.
Conflict between Steller sea lions and fishers, especially in Alaskan waters, is intense. Of 682 marine mammals killed or gravely injured by humans, 2000-2014, 468 were Steller sea lions, according to a March 2016 report by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
“The vast majority of those deaths and injuries came from entanglements, entrapments and hookings, most of which were linked to commercial fishing,” summarized Yereth Rosen of Alaska Dispatch News.
Marineland Canada charged
Also on November 25, 2016 the Ontario SPCA hit the 55-year-old Marineland Canada marine mammal park at Niagara Falls, Ontario with five animal cruelty charges, none of them pertaining to marine mammals.
One count was for allegedly leaving an injured peacock in distress, one count was for “failing to comply with prescribed standards of care for the peacock,” two counts were for “failing to comply with prescribed standards of care for Guinea hens,” and one count was for “failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care including failing to provide adequate and appropriate food and water for approximately 35 American black bears.
“Further charges are pending at this time,” the Ontario SPCA said in a prepared statement.
Marineland Canada blames ex-employee
Marineland Canada in a prepared statement denied the charges, attributing them to a complaint “by a former animal care worker who was fired for poor performance and inappropriate behavior.”
“Marineland Canada first opened in 1961 when owner John Holer started shows with a few sea lions in a small pool in Niagara Falls,” recounted Liam Casey of Canadian Press.
“It has since grown into a massive amusement park with one killer whale (orca), dozens of beluga whales, dolphins, walruses and land animals such as deer, bears, birds and fish.
“Marineland Canada has been investigated before,” Casey acknowledged. “Former employees went public with allegations of animal abuse at the park among both its marine and land animals in 2012. The Ontario SPCA did not lay charges at the time but issued several orders, which Marineland Canada complied with.”
Known for importing or breeding wildlife, and then reselling the animals to other exhibition facilities, Marineland Canada housed the orca Keiko, star of the Free Willy! film trilogy and then focus of a $20 million rehabilitation-for-release effort, from 1979 to 1981.
Sold to the El Reino Aventura marine park in Mexico City, where much of the first Free Willy! film was made, Keiko was transferred to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996-1998, relocated to Iceland for final rehabilitation before release to the wild, and finally was released in mid-2003, only to die in a Norway fjord six months later.
Friends of the Dolphin
Friends of the Dolphin founder Cara Sands appears to have been first to draw activist attention to Marineland of Canada, issuing critical reports about the facility after visits in May 1989 and January 1990.
In November 1991 Sands arranged a group visit to Marineland of Canada by former trainer Dan Long, who worked there nine years earlier; Ric O’Barry; and Stephen McCulloch, then a Dolphin Project staff member, now and for the past 20 years the marine mammal program director for the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida. All three were highly critical of what they saw.
Unable to raise enough money to sustain Friends of the Dolphin, Sands dissolved the group in 1998. By then, however, Marineland of Canada had many other critics, including renowned British Columbia whale researcher Paul Spong, Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder Steve Hindi, who was arrested at protest outside Marineland of Canada in 1996, and former Humane Society of the U.S. marine mammologist Naomi Rose, who directed the final phase of the Keiko release program.
Zoocheck Canada and the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies in August 1996 sent a 16-page brief to the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, arguing that Marineland of Canada should not be allowed to acquire any dolphins or whales from the U.S. because the facilities do not meet U.S. size standards.
Marineland of Canada had, however, begun construction of a new orca tank.
Zoocheck Canada in May 1998 produced a more extensive critique entitled Distorted Nature: Exposing the Myth of Marineland, based on testimony from 13 zoological conservation experts, and in 2002 followed up with a paper entitled Commentary on the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) accreditation process: Marineland of Canada, Niagara Falls.
Lawsuits & charges
Holer, who has sued several of his critics, including former employee Phillip Demers and Niagara Action for Animals, has himself at least twice been taken to court by animal advocates, but was acquitted both times.
In 1991 the Lincoln County Humane Society charged Holer with cruelty in connection with the death of a newborn fallow deer. Holer was acquitted by Ontario provincial court judge Donald Wallace in June 1992. In 1996 Holer was charged with careless driving after allegedly striking Zoocheck Canada director Holly Penfound with his truck as she leafleted outside Marineland of Canada. Penfound was transported to a hospital by ambulance with injuries described by police as “very minor.” Holer was acquitted of the careless driving charge in July 1997.
Holer lost a round in 1998, when the Ontario Natural Resources Ministry removed two orphaned bear cubs from Marineland of Canada in settlement of a lawsuit brought by Zoocheck Canada, the Animal Alliance of Canada, and the Bear Alliance.