22 February 2012

Belugas languish at Vancouver Aquarium

Animals rights hyperbole alienates public, hurts cause

Save the whales, from the animal rights folk.

No other North American social movement has been more damaged, more pushed to the fringe, by extremists than the so-called animal rights movement. Regularly, intransigence from hardcode activists alienates the general public. Legitimate concerns about animal wellbeing, whether in pet stores, zoos or aquariums, get lost in the gong show.

For example. Last week, following a Jan. 31 highway collision in Manitoba involving a train, a tractor-trailer and 71 cows, animal rights group PETA called for a roadside memorial. "A memorial sign will serve as a tribute," said PETA spokesperson Emily Lavender, "to those dozens of cows who had been severely injured and killed on their way to slaughter."

The humanization of cows (the other red meat) demonstrates the fatal flaw of the animal rights movement. Rights, bestowed by culture and courts, remain the sole property of human beings who enact laws to, among other things, protect animals from mistreatment. An accident involving dozens of dead cows does not require a Charter challenge-it requires a bulldozer, and maybe some barbecue sauce.

Last Friday, while a light rain fell on the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, three beluga whales-smooth and white with deep black eyes, averaging more than 3,000 pounds-moved gracefully through blue water in an outdoor tank no bigger than a typical hotel swimming pool. In the wild, belugas cruise Arctic coastlines of the U.S., Canada and Russia, diving for char, squid and crab. In Stanley Park, they float next to a snack bar that sells hamburgers and fish and chips.

According to aquarium officials, seven cetaceans (three whales, three dolphins, one porpoise) live at the aquarium. Every year, one million visitors pay up to $17 to tap the glass at one of Vancouver's most popular attractions. Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its annual meeting in Vancouver. The four-day event included a symposium at the Vancouver Convention Centre where conservationists and ethicists argued against cetaceans in captivity. Oddly, two days earlier, the AAAS staged a media reception at (you guessed it) the Vancouver Aquarium.

When critics such as No Whales in Captivity, a Vancouver-based group, cried foul, the AAAS acknowledged the irony but pled no contest. "We had already paid our deposit fee at the aquarium at that point in time," said Ginger Pinholster, AAAS spokesperson, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C.

No Whales spokesperson Annelise Sorg fired back, telling the Courier: "Here they are promoting the declaration of cetacean rights while at the same time booking the local whale jail for a media reception party. It just doesn't make sense."

I'm with Annelise on that one, hyperbole about the "whale jail" notwithstanding. But what do Vancouverites think?

Back in 1993, a referendum sunk the Stanley Park zoo when 53 per cent of voters called for its closure. Yet the aquarium, a non-profit organization, remains open for business on public land thanks to an agreement with the park board.

The board has kicked around the cetacean issue for years. Former park board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon, who lost his reelection bid last November, wanted a plebiscite added to the 2011 civic election ballot. Whales and dolphins, said Mackinnon, should be phased out of Vancouver. However, Vision park commissioner Aaron Jasper nixed the plebiscite, claiming it put the "the park board at risk of a potential lawsuit" because of the board's legal arrangement with the aquarium.

Incidentally, that arrangement includes $90,000 in rent each year from the aquarium to the board. Not to mention an untold number of tourist dollars for the economy and the cachet all great cities, especially the "most livable city in the world," require. Whales are big business. And they aren't leaving Vancouver anytime soon.

To be fair, the aquarium says captive whales spawn valuable research, which aids conservation efforts in the wild. No doubt that's true. But last Friday I watched three belugas logroll in a virtual puddle while kids pointed and cameras flashed. Such scenes seem unworthy of scientific research. Moreover, despite requests from the Courier, aquarium officials refuse to disclose documentation about the origin and transportation of belugas and other cetaceans. What's the park board think about that?

Two weeks ago, a U.S. federal court dismissed a PETA lawsuit, which accused SeaWorld of violating the "constitutional rights" of killer whales because the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. Whatever your views on captive whales, you likely don't equate them with black slaves.

If activists focused on reality when pushing aquariums and their political allies, more people would listen. The caging of magnificent animals seems out-of-step with humanity's forward march.


Twitter: @MarkHasiuk

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