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Animal rights group celebrates Vancouver Aquarium's no-whales announcement

But the aquarium is not giving up on overturning the park board's cetacean ban in court

Chester, a false killer whale, died at the Vancouver Aquarium in November 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

Chester, a false killer whale, died at the Vancouver Aquarium in November 2017.

An animal rights group is celebrating the Vancouver Aquarium’s decision to no longer keep whales and dolphins in captivity, but they're not letting the facility off the hook just yet.

“I think a high degree of oversight is necessary over them. What we have seen in the past is they are keen to rescue animals, particularly where there is the possibility of long term options to display them," said Camille Labchuk, lawyer and executive director at Animal Justice.

Animal Justice was one of two interveners in the Vancouver Aquarium’s legal challenge against the Vancouver Park Board’s cetacean ban. The judge heard arguments from the two groups in December and is expected to make a ruling shortly.

In a written statement, the park board applauded the aquarium's decision and said it looks forward to working with the non-profit's OceanWise conservation efforts. It would not comment further citing the aquarium's ongoing legal action against it.

Animal rights group say the court case is still significant despite the aquarium’s announcement because the organization should not have free rein with the animals in its care.

If the park board’s bylaw is overturned in court, the aquarium could change its mind about cetacean captivity in the future. However, Bill S-203 is currently in the Senate and if passed, would ban cetacean-captivity nation wide.

Helen the Pacific white-sided dolphin is the last cetacean left at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Helen the Pacific white-sided dolphin is the last cetacean left at the Vancouver Aquarium.

The bill currently includes an exception for rescued and rehabilitated animals, but the Vancouver Park Board’s bylaw does not allow the aquarium to bring cetaceans into Stanley Park – no exceptions.

Labchuk says aquariums everywhere should take today’s announcement as a sign that the public no longer supports the practice of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.

“Today is a sign that the writing is on the wall for the whale and dolphin captivity industry,” she said.

“I think that every single piece of litigation, every single bylaw that was passed, every single protest that was held outside of their facility, played a role in the [Vancouver Aquarium’s] case.”

But one historian says the ethics of keeping cetaceans in captivity are not so clear cut.

Jason Colby, a professor of environmental history at the University of Victoria, says the absence of captive whales at the Vancouver Aquarium could ultimately hurt efforts to save their cousins in the wild.

He expressed his reservations about the park board’s decision after the ban first came into effect in May. Most people agree capturing healthy dolphins for captivity is no longer acceptable, he said. But displaying rescued cetaceans was a “happy medium,” that, as uncomfortable as it made Vancouverites feel, helped visitors from other parts of the world sympathize with endangered whales that need people’s help, he told Metro.

The aquarium put people face to face with the giant animals and that transformed the public’s views on them, he said.

“It has contributed powerfully to people’s emotional, intellectual, political investment in the survival of cetaceans.” 

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