Did Vancouver Aquarium capitulate to the animal rights industry?

Vancouver Aquarium (VanAqua) announced in January 2018 that it is going to now discontinue the display of cetaceans (whales and dolphins).  This comes after a protracted period of protest from the animal rights industry and the controversial decision by the Vancouver Parks Board to arbitrarily ban the aquarium for keeping cetaceans at the aquarium

It is with a certain amount of irony that only a few years earlier the Park Board had approved the plan for the aquarium building new facility entitled "Canada's Arctic" which were to include new facilities for marine animals including belugas.

However, in 2017 (after pressure from the animal rights industry) the board introduced a by law to ban the display of cetaceans at the aquarium site.

Initially, the aquarium was preparing to take legal action against the Parks Board as regards the ban on cetaceans being displayed at the aquarium. In the past, the aquarium threatened to legally challenge the Parks Board in 2014 when they tried to initiate a ban on the breeding of cetaceans at the aquarium site. However, the ban was never implemented by the Board and the legal case by the aquarium was dropped. 

The reaction on social media to the Vancouver Aquarium announcement that they would cease voluntarily the display of cetaceans has been mixed.  

Obviously, supporters of the animal rights industry have been jubilant in what they perceive as a victory. Some maintained that this was a progressive and moral victory. Nevertheless, it could be argued that there is nothing progressive or moral in the campaign against the aquarium where intimidation and bullying were commonplace particularly within the social media. It could also be argued that the protesters relied heavily on both rhetoric and pseudoscience to further their aims.

Those who have supported the aquarium throughout the situation expressed both dismay and in some cases anger in what they see as a betrayal of their long-standing support.

"...It is not a milestone, it is destruction caused by a tiny fraction of nearly religious anti-animal zealots. They wouldn't care if VanAqua closed down tomorrow and could do no more good ever. Soon they will come for the pinnipeds, and then for all of it..."

So was the aquarium right to acquiesce the Parks Boards decision and discontinue the display of cetaceans. As can be seen, by the brief outline of the relationship of the aquarium with the parks board this has been difficult at times.

Moreover, one could question the legitimacy of the Park Board intervening in matters that directly deal with the day-to-day operation of the aquarium and its policies regarding research, education and conservation as a public aquarium. The Parks Board is made up of members of the public none of which have any experience in animal husbandry or the operation of a modern zoological collection. 

Historically, the aquarium has stood its ground on a number of occasions in defending itself against interference from the Parks Board which they believe is unjustified. However, as mentioned by John Nightingale, such actions require considerable amounts of time and money. The aquarium is a not-for-profit public aquarium with only infinite resources. Further, it probably is legitimate to claim that these monies that are constantly having to be found, to defend themselves against the vexatious and overbearing Parks Board, are taking away resources that could be used for the prime purpose of the aquarium which is to display aquatic life as a means of public education, conservation and research.

There are some similarities to the plight of Vancouver Aquarium as regards SeaWorld. 

In 2014, Seaworld's park in San Diego sought permission from the California Coastline Commission to build new facilities for there killer whales.  The planning permission was eventually granted with the caveat that the park would no longer be allowed to breed their killer whales. SeaWorld threatened to sue the California Coastline Commission citing overreach that as a planning agency they had no jurisdiction over the husbandry and welfare of animals contained within the park. 

However, under the auspices of the SeaWorld Parks CEO Joel Manby, it was decided that the parks would voluntarily stop breeding their killer whales. This coincided with legislation being introduced in a state of California that effectively ban the breeding and display of killer whales. Animals that existed in zoos or aquariums at the time of the legislation were allowed to continue to display these animals but only in an educational context and not in theatrical shows.

In the above incidences, the disputes between Vancouver Aquarium and SeaWorld San Diego have some similarities. These involved a public planning body (Vancouver Park Boards and the California Coastal Commission) and also a public community with a well known supportive attitude to the agenda of the animal rights movement. 

However, the primary difference is that SeaWorld (as a public company listed on the American Stock Exchange) has huge financial and legal resources compare to the not-for-profit Vancouver Aquarium. SeaWorld made a decision based on business politics whereas Vancouver my a decision based on dwindling resources and a need to concentrate on the core values of operating a public aquarium.  
The aquarium has made it clear that it will continue with its research with cetaceans both in the wild and in captive care; the aquarium still owns a number of belugas in various facilities on protracted loans in North America. 

Further, the aquarium is committed to the rescue and rehabilitation of all marine mammals including cetaceans at its off-site rescue facility which does not come under the jurisdiction of the Parks Board. The only difference here is there any animals that are rehabilitated but deemed unreleasable will have to be sent to other facilities in North America for long-term care.

Because of the political dimension involved, and the fact that the Parks Board members are voted in office on a regular basis, it is possible that the situation regarding any bans on any animals been kept the aquarium could well be open to review.  In fact, it has been muted that the Parks Board itself may not exist in the future as a part of local government. As stated, Vancouver still has a commitment and a support for the maintenance of cetaceans in captivity and therefore future political developments may well change the current situation.

In Feburary 2018, the B.C. court struck down the Park Board's cetacean ban at Vancouver Aquarium.  It upheld the position that the Board had no jurisdiction to pass the amendment because of an existing licence agreement allowing it to operate in the park until 2029.

An email sent to support as the aquarium from its CEO John Nightingale explaining its decision to discontinue the display of cetaceans:
As a long-time supporter and ambassador for the Vancouver Aquarium, I wanted to reach out to you personally about an important milestone in our 61-year-old organization.
The launch of Ocean Wise last year, our global conservation organization and parent to the Vancouver Aquarium, marked a new chapter in our history. Guided by our vision of a world in which oceans are healthy and flourishing, we are as committed as ever to ocean conservation through innovative research, education and direct action.

Unfortunately, the ongoing discussions about whales and dolphins in our care have distracted us from our core mission. This is despite independent polling, year over year, which clearly shows overwhelming support for our cetacean program.

I want you to be among the first to know that we will continue our commitment to ocean conservation, including through expanded public engagement, but we will do so without the display of whales or dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium.

The Vancouver Aquarium will continue to be a world-class facility where we engage more than one million visitors annually to other vulnerable species, which will enable us to better focus on inspiring the global community to join our conservation efforts.

As part of the transition, our animal care team is working thoughtfully on the best possible arrangements for the Pacific white-sided dolphin, Helen. Believed to be in her early 30s, Helen is considered a senior-aged rescued dolphin. After many years in professional care and with only partial flippers, Helen is not a candidate for release. However, dolphins are a social species so finding companionship for her is important. Unfortunately, decisions about her future are complicated, with options limited at this time by her age, Vancouver Park Board legislation, the outcome of court challenges and the long processes of obtaining international permits. 
We will continue to run our marine mammal rescue program, which is core to our mission and will continue to rehabilitate these animals, including cetaceans, with our objective being release back to the wild. We operate this program under authorization by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which has sole authority to determine if an animal can be released. Should a rescued cetacean require ongoing care, our team will identify an appropriate long-term facility and arrange for the transfer of the patient, which may include temporary housing at the Aquarium’s unique facility. 
As one of only a few organizations around the globe working on Arctic issues, we are moving ahead with construction on Canada’s Arctic gallery. The transformed habitat will engage visitors about Canada’s fragile North and will introduce them to amazing marine life – from coldwater corals to Arctic pinnipeds such as seals and walruses. We anticipate starting construction in September 2018 and opening this new, permanent exhibit in late 2019. 

You have played an essential role in helping the Vancouver Aquarium, and Ocean Wise, evolve over the years and become what it is today – a leading conservation organization grounded in science, with a unique ability to engage people. We intend to remain responsive and relevant to our community for generations to come.  

We wanted to give you this personal heads-up and greatly appreciate your continued support. 

I encourage you to share your thoughts about this milestone with me and to share your ideas about how we safeguard our oceans in the future.  

Thank you for your continued support and I look forward to staying in touch. 

John Nightingale
President & CEO