Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Bill

Bill to Amend—Second Reading—Debate Continued

May 3, 2016


The Honourable Senator Donald Neil Plett :

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill S-203, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts (ending the captivity of whales and dolphins).

Colleagues, I am unable to support this proposed legislation. This bill is fundamentally flawed, constitutionally suspect, contrary to over 100 years of environmental legislation and policy, scientifically unsound, contrary to public interest and bad for the economy.

First, there are serious constitutional issues raised by this proposed legislation. This bill in its scope and intent is certainly questionable as to whether it is beyond the scope of powers granted to the federal government in the Constitution. That issue should be of significant concern to each of us and in the forefront of our considerations as we debate this bill.

This proposed legislation has arisen out of and in direct response to a three-year legislative process in the Province of Ontario, commencing in 2012, leading to new Ontario provincial legislation and regulation directly governing the care of marine mammals. This provincially enacted legislation rejects what is proposed by this bill.

After lengthy public debate in Ontario, including the creation of an independent and international scientific advisory panel and receipt of its comprehensive report, the creation of a technical advisory group, composed of stakeholders from across the country and public hearings, provincial legislation has been passed in Ontario that expressly permits keeping marine mammals in human care and creates and implements stringent regulations regarding the care and treatment of marine mammals.

That lengthy and full democratic process in Ontario over the course of the three years specifically considered and rejected precisely what this bill now proposes to do. The very arguments made in support of this bill were considered at length, studied and rejected in a thorough legislative and independent scientific review process in Ontario. What a small number of activists could not persuade the Ontario legislature to do, they now seek to persuade this Senate to agree to by this bill and impose on the entire country.

Not only is this bill constitutionally unsound, it also fundamentally represents a complete negative departure from over a century of integrated Canadian and international wildlife policy and legislation that has guided every provincial and federal government since Confederation, and which today informs international treaties and efforts to preserve and protect our natural environment.

Our zoos and aquariums, the scientific work they support, the Canadian children they educate, and the rescued animals they care for are critical to an integrated federal and provincial legislative framework that seeks to ensure that wildlife and habitat continue to function in a biologically integrated web, with the goal of enhancing wildlife protection, conservation and management in Canada.

Simply banning the keeping of certain animals in human care, which is all this bill seeks to do, denies us the opportunity to educate our children and ourselves and rejects the cornerstone principles of a continent-wide network of legislation that demands and requires the active positive study, protection and preservation of all our wildlife.

This bill denies us the opportunity to study and learn from a very small number of captive animals in a way that will permit us to understand and address those animals' unique and special needs in much larger populations in the wild.

As a product of belief rather than science or fact, this legislation only leads to a denial of opportunity to educate, a loss of scientific study and research, a halt to advances in care and treatment, the loss of treatment facilities and valuable experienced staff, and the ultimate neglect and death of our marine mammals.

For those reasons and in support of positive, science-based legislation, research, education and development, I encourage you to consider carefully the very negative impact of this legislation on our environment and the positive legislative steps and regulations already implemented in Ontario and elsewhere.

For over 100 years, Canadians have adopted a strong and progressive policy of positive wildlife management, conservation and protection. In simple terms, wildlife are animals that are not domesticated. Individual animals in captivity are still wildlife, as they are not genetically different from those not in captivity.

That includes whales and dolphins. Whales and dolphins have always been part of the wildlife we seek to protect and preserve. Numerous laws, regulations and treaties seek to preserve and protect our whales and dolphins and have been largely successful in doing so. Canada and the United States have shown the foresight and leadership that would become the hallmark of our legislative efforts for over a century.

It was recognized in the early 19th century that human activity is the largest influence on the well-being and abundance of wildlife. Even then, legislators recognized that there is no "wild" that is not subject to the direct influence and control of humanity, and that no significant part of the globe remains truly "wild" without humankind's potential interference.

This led to the first wildlife conservation and management legislation in the world in Canada and in the United States. Conservation, preservation and research in relation to marine mammals have continually developed as our scientific capabilities to care for, treat and enrich the lives of those animals became possible.

For example, the Vancouver Aquarium is home to the only marine rescue facility in Canada. The aquarium is the only facility in Canada with the skills, expertise and resources necessary to respond to cetacean-stranding emergencies. The aquarium's ability as first responders has been developed over decades of caring for cetaceans that includes hands-on skills and experience that are gained daily in a controlled, professional setting. With the goal evident in Bill S-203 of eventually phasing out the keeping of any cetaceans in human care, we would be stunting the growth of professional development and research opportunities that may one day save already-threatened species.

The on-site research is so vital and so successful that the Vancouver Aquarium is the only place in Canada with a staff that can be readily mobilized to go out and rescue a whale or a dolphin. This is because their staff have everyday, hands-on experience and expertise with cetaceans in their care.

For example, in the Arctic, impacts of noise on beluga hearing and social structure as the ice melts and the shipping increases, the role of human-generated contaminants and changes in food supply are just three areas where research is needed to predict what will happen to these species and populations in the future.

The small group of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium provides Canadian scientists and visiting scientists from around the world the rare opportunity to conduct important research that would be impossible to lead in the wild.

As Dr. Michael Kinsel, a zoological pathologist and program director at the University of Illinois said when asked about freeing all marine mammals from human care:

I don't know that those individual animals in the wild would be any better served by us being ignorant of their condition, of their medicine and their diseases, and things that we are gaining from keeping these animals in captivity, that are applicable to animals in the wild.

Should we ever wish to, for example, intervene in a disease outbreak in one of these free ranging species without any knowledge of how to treat, what the expression of the disease is, what the efficacy of treatment would be. These are all things that come from our experiences. In the wild, you would be entering into a situation where you are trying to intervene with complete ignorance behind you instead of a toolbox full of experience that affords a cogent way forward.

The impact of environmental changes on aquatic species requires more research today, not less. Peer-reviewed scientific literature has been published, demonstrating that cetaceans in professional care directly contribute to integral research and rescue programs that help save wild cetaceans and inform practices and policies to preserve ocean environments.

Absolutely no science-based evidence to the contrary has been presented.

Aquariums have an important role in connecting people to the natural world. They are widely recognized as an important educational tool. When we are able to connect with certain species, we are more likely to act as advocates for them. That is the irony here. The reason people feel connected to these species when they are in any kind of peril is because they have had the opportunity to connect with them in facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium or Marineland.

There are several species in the wild that are in grave danger that are largely ignored by activist groups. Dr. Lanny Cornell, a veterinarian for marine animals with over 40 years' experience, noted that he has personally removed bullets from killer whales and other marine mammals that were shot in the wild. Since the display of killer whales in facilities such as Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium, the number of animals killed or shot in the wild has decreased considerably.

On this note, Dr. Kinsel, the zoological pathologist from the University of Illinois, contended:

I think you could take examples from other species which aren't held routinely in captive facilities that are in trouble out in the wild and people really don't care because they have no connection with them.

He continued:

I think it's important for people to make the connection with marine mammals in the setting of these captive holding facilities, because it changes the nature of the relationship. It goes from something theoretical, to something tangible.

Colleagues, the only way to effectively conserve species is to get people to care about species and to get people interested in the oceans and ocean life.

A tremendous number of emotional and false allegations have been made about animals in human care in Canada. First, there are no peer-reviewed scientific studies that credibly demonstrate that the keeping of cetaceans in human care is cruel. Any claim of cruelty has been based upon the illogical attribution of human displays of grief, for example, sounds and facial expressions to marine mammals. In fact, as is the case of the beluga whales at Marineland, low cortisol levels among all the animals is a very strong biological indicator of low stress and contentment.

The myth that marine mammals live for a shorter period of time in human care is also false. In fact, to the contrary, marine mammals lead far longer and healthier lives when they do not face harsh environmental conditions, being preyed upon, shortages of food, and the lack of medical care, all of which are not an issue in our zoos and aquariums.

Cruelty claims have also been based upon the notion that a collapsed dorsal fin represents a lack of well-being for the mammal, as well as a decrease in life expectancy. This claim is entirely unfounded.

In fact, theriogenologist Dr. Todd Robeck and Dr. Naomi Rose from the Animal Welfare Institute, who, in fact, are two leading animal rights activists who personally oppose the SeaWorld business model, both spoke at a round table discussion on this topic recently in San Diego. They agreed, unequivocally, that a collapsed dorsal fin is in no way symptomatic of physical or mental illness, dehydration or an overall decline in health or welfare. This phenomenon is simply the effect of gravity over time on the fibrous connective tissue that makes up dorsal fins and tail flukes. When the animal spends more time at the surface, the dorsal will collapse. This has zero effect on the orca's health, welfare or agility.

Marine mammal veterinarian Dr. Geraldine Lacave noted that of course there are differences between living in human care and living in the wild. However, the marine science community cannot say definitively that one is worse or one is better.

There has also been a lot of misinformation surrounding breeding in captivity in Canadian facilities. Breeding is very important for a number of reasons. First of all, it is absolutely normal and healthy behaviour. If a facility has two of the same species and separates them in order to prevent breeding, keeping them in isolation — that would be cruel. As Senator Moore has noted — and science has backed up — these are very social mammals and, where possible, they should be kept together.

There is no science to support the claim that mammals bred in human care are any worse off than their counterparts in the wild. Dr. Noonan, who has been studying beluga whales at Marineland for over 20 years, has concluded that the stress indicators for the beluga whales are very low, which explains why Marineland has a very healthy and active group of beluga whales, with a stellar record of births and longevity. For most of Canadians, the only way to see and experience a beluga whale is to visit Marineland or the Vancouver Aquarium, or, indeed, to come out to my province in Manitoba and go out to Churchill and see them in the wild there.

The water system at Marineland is a highly sophisticated, computerized multi-million dollar system which has been independently examined and approved by international water quality experts.

Marineland engages in meticulous recordkeeping and precise monitoring of animal health at all times. How do we know this? Marineland's animal care is carefully monitored by independent marine mammal experts from CAZA and frequent unannounced surprise inspections from the OSPCA and the Niagara Falls Humane Society, and inspections by the Ontario College of Veterinarians. All of Marineland's animal care records are reviewed by them, along with each animal.

Given those facts, it should come as no surprise that Marineland does not withhold food from its animals. That false allegation, among many others, is made over and over again by a very small group of very vocal and zealous radical activists who seek to close all zoos and aquariums and will say anything to achieve that goal.

Other recent allegations against Marineland by foreign activists include allegations of deliberate starvation of a young whale, Gia, and the stillborn death of a baby whale. The simple answer to those incredibly hurtful and false allegations is found at Marineland and on Marineland's website, on which anyone can view the video of a well-fed and happy Gia playing with her friends, and additional footage of another very much alive and very healthy baby whale swimming with her mother.

Those same allegations, including withholding food, have been made repeatedly over the last four years to the OSPCA, the NFHS, the College of Veterinarians, and the Government of Ontario. They were all investigated by multiple independent investigators, and all concluded the allegations are false.

The Superior Court of Ontario has asked protestors to stop allegations of animal abuse at Marineland because such repeated allegations have been proven to be false. Those allegations were rejected by the Government of Ontario. The government's legislation and regulations reflect its conclusion that marine mammals can be cared for properly in human care in Canada.

Sadly, a few zealous and radical activists are simply unwilling to accept any facts that do not support their rigid beliefs and sole goal — to close every zoo and aquarium.

Honourable senators, the passage of this legislation also has serious consequences for the economy. Specifically, Marineland attracts 1 million visitors a year to the Niagara region. The Niagara Falls Tourism Association reports that over 55 per cent of all hotel bookings in Niagara Falls are as a direct result of a visit to Marineland. Marineland employs over 700 people, many youth and senior citizens, who rely on their income to pay for school or support their retirement. Tens of thousands of jobs are indirectly supported by Marineland.

As the Chairman of the Niagara Falls Tourism Association and the former Mayor of Niagara Falls, Mr. Wayne Thomson, has stated:

A closure of Marineland would result in hundreds of immediate and directly related layoffs in our tourist businesses, the short-term closures of many businesses and the long-term devastating impact on our community.

Similarly, the Vancouver Aquarium attracts more than 1 million visitors annually, and the total economic impact of spending by all out-of-town visitors to the Vancouver Aquarium is $212 million. The aquarium engaged 80,000 schoolchildren last year. The aquarium also employs 450 Canadians, including the country's top scientists and marine mammal experts.

Colleagues, aside from the blatant disregard for the important reasons marine mammals are kept in human care in Canada, a serious objection I have to this bill is the fact that we are criminalizing Canada's leading marine biologists, animal welfare advocates, scientists, researchers and operators of the most impressive and innovative facilities in our country — facilities which advance the welfare of marine life. The work of these individuals will now be condemned and deemed criminal by this legislation.

It must be noted that any senator who has spoken in favour of this legislation to date has referenced the film Blackfish.

Blackfish is a film solely about SeaWorld, a U.S. company operating only in the United States and operating solely under U.S. legislation. It has nothing at all to do with Canada's zoos or aquariums.

Films have a way of playing to viewers' emotions. Most documentaries are, by nature, agenda driven. The filmmakers include the footage that supports their case and exclude anything to the contrary, with little regard for painting an accurate or a complete picture for the viewer.

For example, there is a scene in Blackfish where it appears that SeaWorld employees are mistreating an orca and the orca appears to be aggressively thrashing around as a result of psychoses due to isolation, the filmmakers allege. However, the marine science world is very familiar with that footage, where in actuality colleagues, it depicts a team of scientists performing an important dental procedure on the orca, and the orca is, as expected, thrashing around and reacting like most animals would do in a similar situation.

There are several examples of this throughout the film which have been brought to my attention by various marine scientists.

This is not a documentary, colleagues. This is propaganda. When I speak to colleagues who are in support of this bill, it becomes evident very quickly that their reasons for supporting this cause stem from this or another documentary with a similar motive.

Misrepresentation aside, whether or not you accept the message in Blackfish, SeaWorld is not Canadian, and it is not the Vancouver Aquarium or Marineland.

As policymakers, we need to educate ourselves with facts before making an emotional decision based on a Hollywood film with very serious, far-reaching and damaging consequences for our environment, our animals, our citizens and our economy. We are smarter than that, colleagues, and we owe it to Canadians to be more responsible than that.

Canada should be proud of the strict guidelines for the treatment of animals that we operate under. We have the best in the world, which allows for research to take place solely for the benefit of marine mammals.

Colleagues, I support nearly all legislation going to committee for thorough study. However, this bill is so fundamentally and constitutionally flawed, as well as predicated on activist claims that are entirely without merit, that I would encourage you to vote against Bill S-203.