In 1991, the Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial supporting the acquisition of more beluga whales from the wild for exhibit at the local Shedd Aquarium, and criticized animal-rights activitists who were opposing this plan. (Belugas, Delphinapterus leucas, are social mammals found in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters.)
I wrote a letter to the editor opposing this capture as inhumane, and unlikely to add anything to our scientific knowledge of the beasts. (I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Shedd has ever published any peer-reviewed scientific papers on their animals). And beluga whales are not legally endangered: since I wrote my letter they’ve been listed as “threatened”, but that’s because of pollution and hunting, something we don’t need to capture whales to mitigate.
Surprisingly, I found my letter on the internet, which criticized the Shedd’s claim that the whales were okay in their small pools because they didn’t show abnormal behaviors (the quotation marks are from the original editorial, which I couldn’t find on the Web):
September 09, 1991|By Jerry Coyne, Associate professor, Dept. of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago.
CHICAGO — In dismissing the arguments of animal rights activists who oppose the capture of more beluga whales for the Shedd Aquarium, your editorial (Aug. 29) makes a number of questionable assertions:
“The belugas at Shedd are hardly cruelly confined.” After observing the apparently normal behavior of well-fed prison inmates, a Martian might make similar arguments for confining humans in small cages. My own guess would be that these highly intelligent creatures, which have evolved to roam the open sea, would prefer to be left in their normal habitat.
“Understanding the breeding biology of belugas is important in protecting them in the wild.” Belugas are not endangered, and they are best protected by leaving them alone. If whales become extinct, it will be due to hunting or pollution, not to ignorance about their reproduction. Moreover, breeding biology in captivity may differ profoundly from that in the wild.
“Exposing people to beluga whales increases their sensitivity toward the animals.” It is not clear how such “sensitivity” will help wild belugas. Many well-loved animals, such as elephants and pandas, go extinct not because of a lack of sensitivity, but because of political and economic considerations beyond our control.
As a biologist, my own response is sadness toward humans who feel no compunction at capturing wild whales and exhibiting them for public entertainment.
Some of the activitists picketing the aquarium used phrases from my letters on their signs, and I was criticized by my department for interfering in the Shedd’s affairs. I paid no attention, for humans surely don’t have the right to remove free-ranging and sentient animals from their habitats just for their own amusement, particularly when studying the whales is not really the object.
Well, aquaria are still up to their old tricks: they want to capture more whales, which are a big public draw (they’re white and cute and lucrative), using the excuse of needing to study them in captivity.
In a piece published yesterday by New York Times writer Felicity Barringer, “Strong opposition to aquarium’s plan to import beluga whales,” the Georgia Aquarium is applying for a permit to capture more whales—a lot of them (eighteen!):
The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a federal import permit on behalf of a group of marine parks, saying the aquariums need the Arctic whales for captive breeding efforts, research and education. Approval would end an import hiatus of nearly two decades that is rooted in misgivings about removing intelligent and social marine mammals from their native waters and their families.
Complicating matters, the federal government’s decision will be based not on bioethics but on the language of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which recognizes a benefit in winning the hearts and minds of paying customers who become attached to animals like the beluga, a facially expressive whale with a distinctive white hue.
Well, that sucks. These whales have no choice about whether they stay in their habitat or are captured (something that really stresses these animals if if you’ve ever seen it) and used to “win the hearts and minds of paying customers.”
In the end, it’s all about money—making these animals into clowns to entertain the public. Believe me, that rakes in the cash, because, at the Shedd, you have to pay extra to see the whales. And it’s not like we can be sure these mammals are happy in their small tanks: they are free-ranging beasts that swim hundreds of miles across open sea and migrate south during summer. That’s where they evolved, and presumably where they’re comfortable.
If you doubt the mercenary motives lurking behind the pretense of science, read this:
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.
Imagine if humans were captured by intelligent extraterrestrial beings, put in cages, and used as accountrements in wedding ceremonies! This practice of my own local aquarium disgusts me. I call on my fellow biologists at the Shedd to stop degrading offers like this.
I’m not the only scientist who objects:
For Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, there is not much need for debate. “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,” he said. “There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.” . . .
. . . Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies whale intelligence, said she saw the aquarium’s main incentive as “to keep people entertained.”
While the acquisition would infuse the captive population with more genetic variety and keep it “going a little while longer,” she said, “there is no scientific purpose.” The Georgia Aquarium and the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, where the belugas are being held, declined to disclose how much the American aquariums had agreed to pay for the whales.
Indeed. Why the secrecy? Could it be because the price is high, and owning the whales so lucrative?
Marilee Menard, the executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, called the imports of belugas “a seminal decision that is strongly supported by the marine mammal community.”
That does not convince Dr. Whitehead, the whale expert in Nova Scotia. In captivity, he said, “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.”
Other scientists have mixed sentiments, like Robert Michaud, an expert at a conservation group called Gremm in Quebec.
“I can make the case that research on these animals in captivity helps animals in the wild,” said Mr. Michaud, who was hired by the Georgia Aquarium to coordinate research into the beluga populations in the Sea of Okhotsk. “We are still learning things about their biology and behavior.” [JAC: Well, have they published their results? And has that learning helped us conserve them?]
But “you won’t find in me a strong defender of captive animals,” he said.
“You are breaking family groups,” he added. “The pool will never be the open ocean.”
Yes, and if you’ve seen how small the pools are at the Shedd, and how the whales swim around and around in them, endlessly circling, you’d see how cruel this really is.
The beasts can’t speak, so we must speak for them. We do know that, like all cetaceans, they’re intelligent—and these ones are social, forming pods averaging ten members. There’s no way they’re going to replicate their normal lives in aquaria.
The best way to preserve these whales is to eliminate hunting. That’s been done in the U.S., but native North Americans are still allowed to hunt up to 1500 per year in Canada and the U.S., and other countries don’t have such strictures.
We won’t save them by capturing more whales and allowing the public to gawk at them, all the while pretending to study them for conservation purposes. How, for example, are aquaria going to study the effects of pollution on their breeding? That can’t be done. Conducting controlled experiments on animals removed from their native habitat is not only nigh impossible, but captivity may affect their breeding and behavior in ways that can’t be extrapolated to wild populations.
If you want to make your voice heard, and live in the D.C. area, there’s a public meeting for the permit application this Friday from 2-5 p.m. at the NOAA Silver Spring Metro Center Complex, NOAA Science Center, 1301 East-West Highway Silver Spring, MD 20910, and there’s also a Facebook page.
I don’t expect the public to have much influence, though. The forces of money, masquerading as attempts at “conservation,” are too powerful.