Call to end whale captivity

The sudden illness of a female beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium following her offspring's unexpected death two days earlier has her caretakers scrambling to figure out what is behind the alarming development.

But, opponents of whales being held in artificial environments say a long list of beluga deaths in captivity illustrate a need to ban the practice.

Naomi Rose, an activist and marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington D.C., said the couple hundred belugas held in tanks around the world are not faring well.

"They're Arctic animals," she said. "They need cold water. They need cold conditions. And generally speaking, that's expensive."

Rose said belugas are typically kept in conditions that are the Arctic equivalent of summer, without the seasonal fluctuations they would experience in the wild.

"I just get so frustrated when they say, 'Oh, we're shocked (by a death),' because it happens a lot," she said. "It's not unusual at all."

John Nightingale, the aquarium's president and CEO, defended the aquarium's program, insisting that facilities such as Vancouver's are more important than ever in the face of environmental threats posed by climate change and a growing human impact on the natural world.

He said the facility is conferring with medical experts both inside and outside Canada to identify what is ailing Aurora. The whale, who is believed to be 29, is exhibiting the same symptoms that preceded the death of Qila, her 21-year-old calf.

"Whether it's an internal toxin from disease or an external toxin from food, it seems likely that at the very core, physiological root of the problem, there probably is a toxin in there somewhere," Nightingale said. "That's what we're trying to find."

Aurora's condition appeared to have stabilized by Friday afternoon, he said, adding that she was calmer and more alert after her transfer to a medical pool the day before for round-the-clock care and supervision.

A necropsy on the younger whale failed to reveal a cause of death.


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