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Belugas in Captivity: The Legal and Moral Issues

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Belugas in Captivity: the Legal and Moral Issues

From Earth in Transition
September 2012

Gaining a permit to bring dolphins and whales into captivity involves negotiating a thicket of legal, moral and public relations issues. The captivity industry hasn't tried this for almost 20 years. If the Georgia Aquarium succeeds with the 18 belugas they've captured in Russia, they'll have opened the door to a flood of new imports for the marine zoos and circuses. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will be holding a public hearing to determine if there are legal reasons why they should not issue the permit. Naomi Rose of Humane Society International will be arguing the case for returning those belugas to their homes and families.

Earth in Transition: Is it legal to capture whales and dolphins and other marine mammals and bring them into the United States?

Naomi Rose: In fact, there are no laws stopping people capturing them in the United States and putting them on display except for one specific group of killer whales off the coast of Washington. Other than that, it’s legal, although you need a permit.

The reason the captivity industry hasn’t been taking marine mammals from US waters is entirely to do with bad publicity, not the law. In 1993 the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago set off a firestorm of protest when they captured some Pacific white-sided dolphins from California waters. So none of the aquariums have done this since then. And there’s also a voluntary moratorium on taking bottlenose dolphins from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

Earth in Transition: So capturing these 18 belugas in Russian waters so they can bring them here is something new.

Naomi Rose: It’s the first time any US facility has gone directly and deliberately to the wild to bring animals in for public display since 1993. It’s the camel’s nose under the tent. If the Georgia Aquarium gets away with this, the next thing we’ll be seeing facilities asking for is a permit to bring belugas in from Alaska. And then it will be bottlenose dolphins from the Atlantic and white-sided dolphins from the Pacific. The only reason the industry hasn’t sought a permit to go to Alaska directly this time is because of how badly they got burned in 1993.

That’s why it’s so important that we stop them.

Earth in Transition: How are we going to do that?

Naomi Rose: There is going to be a hearing at NMFS headquarters in Silver Spring, which oversees these permits. It’s a tough argument for us to make there because what the Georgia Aquarium is doing is legal.

But there are some arguments we can make. One of them is that there are 40 belugas at Marineland in Canada who are just begging to be rescued. And even though the law itself doesn’t require that you seek already captive animals before you go to the wild, the standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are very clear: you must exhaust all efforts to find them in already existing captive situations before targeting wild populations.

Earth in Transition: Marineland was in the news all last month after the Toronto Star did a big exposé on the animal abuse that’s been going on there.

Naomi Rose: Yes, and it’s quite clear that the belugas are in bad condition. They all need to be got out of there. They’re all in one enclosure and they look like guppies in a fishbowl.

John Holer, who owns Marineland, brought 28 belugas in from Russia a few years ago. They came in several shipments from the same population as the 18 belugas the Georgia Aquarium has captured. And there’s absolutely no reason why the Georgia Aquarium shouldn’t be going to Marineland and persuading Holer or the local authorities that the belugas should be released into their care.

The Toronto Star exposé shows that Holer is not qualified to have those animals. They should be forcefully rescued from him. And if the Georgia Aquarium can spend millions of dollars on capturing whales in Russia, and go to all this trouble to transport them all the way from there when they’ve got 40 from exactly the same families just over the border in Canada, they’ve clearly got the money and the time to put some effort into finding a legal way to get those animals rescued from John Holer.

Earth in Transition: So why don’t they do that?

Naomi Rose: The only reason it isn’t happening is that the facilities here in the U.S., especially SeaWorld, have burned their bridges with Holer. SeaWorld won a lawsuit against himlast year when they were fighting over a killer whale that SeaWorld had loaned to Marineland. So he wouldn’t give them the time of day now.

We’re talking about the lives of intelligent, sensitive animals. The Georgia Aquarium should be going to Canada and rescuing the belugas at Marineland.But that’s irrelevant. We’re talking about the lives of intelligent, sensitive animals. I’m sorry if these big companies couldn’t play in the sand box together, but they shouldn’t be traumatizing 18 whales in the wild just because of that. Those 40 belugas need rescuing. The Georgia Aquarium should be going to Canada and working with the authorities there, raiding the place if they have to, and taking those animals away. They can just drive up there, for heaven’s sakes!

Instead of doing that, the Georgia Aquarium has already told the NMFS that they’ve talked to Holer and there are “incompatibilities” of philosophy. But we say that’s not good enough. They have to makehim work with them because these animals need rescuing.

Earth in Transition: What other arguments can you make?

Naomi Rose: Most of all, we need to fight this in the court of public opinion. Just for starters, the Georgia Aquarium is saying all kinds of things that simply don’t stand up. People who go to these aquariums assume that they’re saving poor animals who need to be rescued. And the captivity industry is going to do their best to play the capture of these 18 belugas as conservation, when in fact all they’re doing is lifting perfectly healthy animals out of their family groups.

The Georgia Aquarium is also saying they want to establish a species survival plan. That’s a program that’s been set up by the AZA to have a population of at least 50 of any particular species as a breeding population for conservation purposes. The only thing is, belugas aren’t an endangered species overall and breeding in the wild is not their problem – habitat degradation is. So the whole logic is inconsistent.

Earth in Transition: Anything else?

Naomi Rose: There’s the whole question of humane capture. We’re going to show people that capturing belugas is inhumane. That’s a difficult argument to make at a hearing or in court since by law the burden of proof is on us to show that it was inhumane. The aquarium doesn’t have to prove anything.

But we can certainly make a public issue of this. The Georgia Aquarium is not denying that they tied ropes around the tails of the animals. And that in itself is about as nasty a thing as you can do to a cetacean – to tie something around their tail stock and hold them by the tail. That may not be enough to satisfy the legal standard that it’s inhumane, but since they’re actually admitting they did it, at least we don’t have to prove that they did.

Earth in Transition: Isn’t there also some really shocking video from several years ago of belugas being captured?

Naomi Rose: Yes, but we can’t use that and the Georgia Aquarium is saying they didn’t do anything like what’s in that video. On the other hand we are certainly going to ask them to show us video of the capture of these 18 belugas. We’re going to ask: “Did you take any video of your capture?” And if they say no, we’re going to ask “Well, why didn’t you? Everyone’s got a cell phone these days. And really no one took any video? That’s ridiculous.”

After all, if they’re so proud of the humaneness of their capture, why wouldn’t they take lots and lots of video and photos to show us how humane it was?