Captivity often tragic for our marine animals

by | Jan 30, 2015 | Opinion

Katherine George 

A&E Editor

It might seem odd that as a close resident to Niagara Falls’ Marineland, I’ve never been a visitor. The friendly and welcoming atmosphere is enticing to children and even adults, but looking past their catchy commercialized tune and the smiling faces of soaked audience members, I can honestly say that everybody in fact does not love Marineland.


Ontario has finally raised a voice against the current standards of handling and publicly displaying marine mammals in captivity. Yasir Naqvi, the minister in charge, announced a plan to develop new regulations of care for marine mammals in captivity, specifically banning the further acquisition and sale of killer whales.


This decision is long overdue. The current animal protection legislation in Ontario provides little protection for marine mammals in captivity. Their standard of care is the same that applies to all animals under the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.


The biggest predator in Canada is Ontario, which houses the highest number of aquariums and zoos in the country, totaling 62. As such, it blazes the path for other provinces by becoming the first to set specific standards of care for marine mammals.


The upcoming regulations will be based on a report from University of British Columbia, marine biologist Dr. David Rosen and his team of scientists, which said, “the present standards of care that apply to marine mammals in public display facilities are insufficient.”


Orcas are attractive to human beings because of their immense size. Killer whales can reach up to 32 feet and 22,000 pounds. When in the wild, orcas can swim up to 100 miles per day, which makes their captive water tank seem like a bathtub.


Aquariums and zoos are kept open for educational purposes. However, most of these institutions are corporations that operate in order to generate profit. The basis of their business is to provide entertainment and amusement to the general public. Trainers dangle food to promote circus-like behaviour that is routine and unnatural to their wild tendencies. This form of education provides a misconstrued hierarchy between marine mammals and humans.


Supporters of captivity argue that as our population grows, it will become increasingly difficult for human beings to interact with nature. The less contact people have with wild animals the more they will become desensitized to their existence. If zoos and aquariums are demolished, future generations will not learn to feel empathy for a creature until they see and feel their presence. This is an experience that cannot be encapsulated in documentaries and movies.


Yet, the question must be raised as to whether the act of jumping through hoops and creating a big splash is truly a moving experience or simply another form of entertainment. Captivity is the result of a lack of empathy; it does not promote empathy.


Orcas are highly intelligent and social animals, which increases their level of suffering. They are creatures of companionship that travel in pods. Each pod communicates through a distinct dialect. Marineland in Niagara Falls is the only park in Ontario with a captive orca, Kiska. Kiska is a naturally social mammal that lives in solitary confinement.


Aquariums and zoos ensure scientists ability to monitor species and save them from extinction. Orcas are not an endangered species so there is no need to pluck them from their natural habitat.


Scientists use tagging and tracking devices to monitor and study marine mammals; observing their behavior in captivity does not provide an accurate representation of their species because their wild instincts have been obstructed.


Worse, captivity encourages extinction by causing harmful stress to the animal. When wild animals are in captivity, they can become more aggressive as a result of stress. Orcas are often forced into ‘artificial’ social groupings with the inability to escape unlike in the wild.


Captive orcas and dolphins have a shorter life span than their wild counterparts. This would not be true if life in captivity was healthy and sustainable, especially when captive marine mammals don’t suffer the same daunting risks as predators or ocean pollution.


According to an article in the Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, marine mammals will often pick up objects that fall into their pools and ingest them. Also, large air-filled balls that are used during performances can get lodged in an animal’s throat when diving and tethering objects can result in entanglement.


Although Ontario’s new regulations are a step in the right direction, they will not change my decision not to visit zoos and aquariums. In other provinces where the practice cannot be completely stopped, there should at least be held to a proper standard of care in place to ensure their safety.