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Lone dolphin's fate at Vancouver Aquarium debated following cetacean deaths

Helen is the only cetacean left at the aquarium after Chester, the false killer whale, died last week.

A Vancouver Aquarium trainer interacts with Helen, a pacific white sided dolphin.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

A Vancouver Aquarium trainer interacts with Helen, a pacific white sided dolphin.

Observers are divided about what is best for Helen, the pacific white-sided dolphin living at the Vancouver Aquarium, after she became the lone cetacean at the facility.

Her tank mate, Chester, a false killer whale, died Nov. 24 after falling ill two days earlier. Preliminary necropsy results show he died from a disease called a bacterial infection called erysipelas, a condition found in captive as well as wild cetaceans, said the aquarium Wednesday.

Helen is not showing any signs of the disease but staff are giving her antibiotics as a precautionary measure, according to the aquarium's head vetrinarian, Dr. Martin Haulena.

Following Chester's death, some animal welfare organizations, like Animal Justice, have renewed their calls for Helen, who is about 30 years old, to be put in a more natural environment, such as a sea pen.

But others are going further and say aquariums cannot provide the physical and physiological needs of dolphins, especially when they are not with their own kind.

“She hasn’t been with another pacific white-sided dolphin for a while and that is very psychologically harmful to them," said Peter Hamilton, with Lifeforce, an ecology advocacy group.

But a Washington-based scientist says it is possible for humans to provide enough socialization for dolphins, who are highly intelligent creatures.

“[Helen] has some longstanding relationships with trainers. It may be possible, it just depends on the animal,” said Joe Gaydos, a science director at SeaDoc Society.

Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian, wrote a report assessing the Vancouver Aquarium’s operations at the request of the Vancouver Park Board in 2014.

“I think there are misconceptions about a lot of the training that goes on,” he said.

“People think they’re turning them into a circus monkey or something like that. But it does keep the animals mentally and physically stimulated.”

As of Wednesday, Helen is in "good spirits" and aquarium staff are introducing new erichment items and training, confirmed Brian Sheehan, the aquarium's curator of marine mammals.

Gaydos commented that in the past, the aquarium may have been able to bring in another cetacean to keep Helen company. Helen arrived at the aquarium with fellow pacific white-sided dolphin Hana in 2005. Hana died in 2015 despite the aquarium’s efforts to save her with ground-breaking surgery.

Then, the park board banned the aquarium from bringing new cetaceans into its Stanley Park facility in May 2017. The aquarium is currently challenging that bylaw in court. 

The non-profit's chief operating officer, Clint Wright, acknowledged the difficult situation in a written statement to Metro.

"We know dolphins are a social species. Unfortunately, decisions about Helen’s future are complicated; our options are limited at this time because of Park Board legislation and action before the courts."

The other option is to transfer Helen to another aquarium, said Gaydos. He is sceptical about the idea of putting cetaceans into sea pens in the ocean. Marine mammals could easily get into trouble with things floating by or into the pool, he said.

“Animals pick up a lot of stuff in the aquarium as it is. In a sea pen, there’s even more stuff they can pick up,” he said.

And while the aquarium has had a string of cetacean deaths in the last year and a half, the facility is, in fact, a world-class centre for cetacean care, emphasized Gaydos. He poured over the non-profit's records for the 2014 report he wrote at the behest of the park board and concluded the facility passed every standard for cetacean care “with flying colours.”

But he acknowledged that keeping cetaceans healthy isn’t always enough.

“The hard question that we’re always trying to ask is, are these animals happy?”

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