Beluga whales to be captured, jailed

October 10, 2012 • 12:08 am

In 1991, the Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial supporting the acquisition of more beluga whales from the wild for exhibit at the local Shedd Aquarium, and criticized animal-rights activitists who were opposing this plan. (Belugas, Delphinapterus leucas, are social mammals found in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters.)

I wrote a letter to the editor opposing this capture as inhumane, and unlikely to add anything to our scientific knowledge of the beasts. (I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Shedd has ever published any peer-reviewed scientific papers on their animals). And beluga whales are not legally endangered: since I wrote my letter they’ve been listed as “threatened”,  but that’s because of pollution and hunting, something we don’t need to capture whales to mitigate.

Surprisingly, I found my letter on the internet, which criticized the Shedd’s claim that the whales were okay in their small pools because they didn’t show abnormal behaviors (the quotation marks are from the original editorial, which I couldn’t find on the Web):

Beluga Beings

September 09, 1991|By Jerry Coyne, Associate professor, Dept. of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago.

CHICAGO — In dismissing the arguments of animal rights activists who oppose the capture of more beluga whales for the Shedd Aquarium, your editorial (Aug. 29) makes a number of questionable assertions:

“The belugas at Shedd are hardly cruelly confined.” After observing the apparently normal behavior of well-fed prison inmates, a Martian might make similar arguments for confining humans in small cages. My own guess would be that these highly intelligent creatures, which have evolved to roam the open sea, would prefer to be left in their normal habitat.

“Understanding the breeding biology of belugas is important in protecting them in the wild.” Belugas are not endangered, and they are best protected by leaving them alone. If whales become extinct, it will be due to hunting or pollution, not to ignorance about their reproduction. Moreover, breeding biology in captivity may differ profoundly from that in the wild.

“Exposing people to beluga whales increases their sensitivity toward the animals.” It is not clear how such “sensitivity” will help wild belugas. Many well-loved animals, such as elephants and pandas, go extinct not because of a lack of sensitivity, but because of political and economic considerations beyond our control.

As a biologist, my own response is sadness toward humans who feel no compunction at capturing wild whales and exhibiting them for public entertainment.

Some of the activitists picketing the aquarium used phrases from my letters on their signs, and I was criticized by my department for interfering in the Shedd’s affairs. I paid no attention, for humans surely don’t have the right to remove free-ranging and sentient animals from their habitats just for their own amusement, particularly when studying the whales is not really the object.

Well, aquaria are still up to their old tricks: they want to capture more whales, which are a big public draw (they’re white and cute and lucrative), using the excuse of needing to study them in captivity.

In a piece published yesterday by New York Times writer Felicity Barringer, “Strong opposition to aquarium’s plan to import beluga whales,” the Georgia Aquarium is applying for a permit to capture more whales—a lot of them (eighteen!):

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a federal import permit on behalf of a group of marine parks, saying the aquariums need the Arctic whales for captive breeding efforts, research and education. Approval would end an import hiatus of nearly two decades that is rooted in misgivings about removing intelligent and social marine mammals from their native waters and their families.

Complicating matters, the federal government’s decision will be based not on bioethics but on the language of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which recognizes a benefit in winning the hearts and minds of paying customers who become attached to animals like the beluga, a facially expressive whale with a distinctive white hue.

Well, that sucks. These whales have no choice about whether they stay in their habitat or are captured (something that really stresses these animals if if you’ve ever seen it) and used to “win the hearts and minds of paying customers.”

In the end, it’s all about money—making these animals into clowns to entertain the public. Believe me, that rakes in the cash, because, at the Shedd, you have to pay extra to see the whales. And it’s not like we can be sure these mammals are happy in their small tanks: they are free-ranging beasts that swim hundreds of miles across open sea and migrate south during summer. That’s where they evolved, and presumably where they’re comfortable.

If you doubt the mercenary motives lurking behind the pretense of science, read this:

At least four of the nation’s largest marine parks, including the Georgia Aquarium, invite visitors to don wet suits and pet or be nuzzled by the animals for $140 to $250. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago offers couples, for $450, a romantic wading experience that can culminate in a marriage proposal with Champagne, strawberries and the beluga as a de facto chaperon.

Imagine if humans were captured by intelligent extraterrestrial beings, put in cages, and used as accountrements in wedding ceremonies! This practice of my own local aquarium disgusts me. I call on my fellow biologists at the Shedd to stop degrading offers like this.

I’m not the only scientist who objects:

For Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, there is not much need for debate. “We know that they are intensely social mammals with complex and lengthy migrations, and that they use a whole bunch of different habitats in different times of the year, and that they are acoustic communicators,” he said. “There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.” . . .

. . . Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies whale intelligence, said she saw the aquarium’s main incentive as “to keep people entertained.”

While the acquisition would infuse the captive population with more genetic variety and keep it “going a little while longer,” she said, “there is no scientific purpose.” The Georgia Aquarium and the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, where the belugas are being held, declined to disclose how much the American aquariums had agreed to pay for the whales.

Indeed. Why the secrecy? Could it be because the price is high, and owning the whales so lucrative?

Marilee Menard, the executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, called the imports of belugas “a seminal decision that is strongly supported by the marine mammal community.”

That does not convince Dr. Whitehead, the whale expert in Nova Scotia. In captivity, he said, “many of the processes which are clearly important in the wild can’t flourish, such as the flexible social systems they seem to have, such as the migrations, such as using sounds without having them echoed back at you from concrete a few meters away.”

Other scientists have mixed sentiments, like Robert Michaud, an expert at a conservation group called Gremm in Quebec.

“I can make the case that research on these animals in captivity helps animals in the wild,” said Mr. Michaud, who was hired by the Georgia Aquarium to coordinate research into the beluga populations in the Sea of Okhotsk. “We are still learning things about their biology and behavior.” [JAC: Well, have they published their results? And has that learning helped us conserve them?]

But “you won’t find in me a strong defender of captive animals,” he said.

“You are breaking family groups,” he added. “The pool will never be the open ocean.”

Yes, and if you’ve seen how small the pools are at the Shedd, and how the whales swim around and around in them, endlessly circling, you’d see how cruel this really is.

The beasts can’t speak, so we must speak for them. We do know that, like all cetaceans, they’re intelligent—and these ones are social, forming pods averaging ten members. There’s no way they’re going to replicate their normal lives in aquaria.

The best way to preserve these whales is to eliminate hunting. That’s been done in the U.S., but native North Americans are still allowed to hunt up to 1500 per year in Canada and the U.S., and other countries don’t have such strictures.

We won’t save them by capturing more whales and allowing the public to gawk at them, all the while pretending to study them for conservation purposes. How, for example, are aquaria going to study the effects of pollution on their breeding? That can’t be done. Conducting controlled experiments on animals removed from their native habitat is not only nigh impossible, but captivity may affect their breeding and behavior in ways that can’t be extrapolated to wild populations.

If you want to make your voice heard, and live in the D.C. area, there’s a public meeting for the permit application this Friday  from 2-5 p.m. at the NOAA Silver Spring Metro Center Complex, NOAA Science Center, 1301 East-West Highway Silver Spring, MD 20910, and there’s also a Facebook page. 

I don’t expect the public to have much influence, though. The forces of money, masquerading as attempts at “conservation,” are too powerful.

43 thoughts on “Beluga whales to be captured, jailed

  1. 40 or so years ago a traveling dolphin show came to the town I was living in. We kids were taken to ‘see the dolphin(s?)’. I recall seeing one dolphin swimming around and around and around a small tank about the size of suburban aboveground swimming pool. My impression is that the dolphin was not happy with the situation.

    It seems clear that dolphins communicate at least as much as birds and monkeys do, and probably more. They may or may not be ‘close to human-level sentience’ or somewhere around the intelligence of a sophisticated dog – but in retrospect I am sure that dolphin swimming around that tank in a strip mall parking lot was using its vocal skills to emit an unending string of imaginative and heart-felt profanity.

  2. One of the best posts and letters I’ve ever seen on the topic. Thanks for writing this and cripes I thought it WAS illegal to take animals from the wild for this. It obviously harms, not benefits the now-formerly wild individual belugas.

    There is no evidence that people learn anything from seeing captive animals, and they may even get the false impression that wild animals are “safer” in captivity.

    Belugas don’t belong in a damn swimming pool.

    1. Agreed, excellent post. When I shared it on G+, one friend remarked though this topic is upsetting to him he still enjoys taking his little girl to the zoo and she enjoys too. I wonder if that is true in the sense that seeing the captive animals is the joyous part. It could just be their spending time together that gives the joy.

      I told him I just can’t frequent most zoos any more with or without kids, and I use nature films and stuffed animals and my garden to teach them how all species are related and how we are interconnected with the environment.

      Excerpted from:

      “When you go to a zoo and see a sad elephant, most kids will be the first ones to tell you it’s depressing. As we get older we do all this self-justification: Yeah that elephant is sad, but he’s a representative for all elephants and helping to educate us…But kids just notice the elephant is looking odd or its eyes are vacant. You don’t learn about elephants by looking at one sad elephant. There was a study on the amount of time the average person stands at a display at the zoo – I believe it’s less than a minute. Most people go to zoos for entertainment, not for education, though the zoo industry will tell you otherwise. At worst, zoos can even give you a false sense of alls-well-in-the-world. If you watch a polar bear play with a plastic ball, they look like they’re doing okay, and then see you see the drastic signage about how the bears are at risk of extinction due to climate change. No one’s ever going to let me really do this, but I what I want to do is take the bear out of the exhibit and put a big sign that says “A polar bear used to be here but they went extinct.” That might work better as a means of education, though it would be depressing.”

  3. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago offers couples, for $450, a romantic wading experience that can culminate in a marriage proposal with Champagne, strawberries and the beluga as a de facto chaperon.

    Some years ago, off the UK’s Northumbria coast, there was well-known dolphin with various names to the various diving clubs who would encounter him regularly over his ‘patch’. While diving with a dolphin who was clearly choosing to spend time was clearly a big draw, from the reports I heard, the diving community were reasonably circumspect about not advertising “dive with a dolphin” trips, though the dolphin’s attendance could be fairly well predicted at certain sites. Which is not surprising, given their notoriously curious intelligence and being apex predators with long-range sensing equipment.
    After a year or so of this, some of the local fishermen cottoned onto the idea as a money-spinning tactic, got hold of a few second-hand wetsuits and did “snorkel with a dolphin” or “wade with a dolphin” trips. This didn’t last very long. The public, particularly women, rapidly became aware of the fact that the dolphin got a kick, a very prominent kick, from “intimate” contact with a neoprene wetsuit.
    After a year, the dolphin disappeared over winter. It’s fate is unknown ; I suppose that it could still be alive ; possibly it became mature enough to consider within-species sex instead of bestiality.
    I would be surprised if this were the only case. (Incidentally, the dolphin’s rubber fetish was well-known amongst divers ; some wore wetsuits, some wore fabric drysuits ; guess who got the attention.)
    I wouldn’t be surprised if the aquarium owners had encountered this before too, but quietly killed the “offending” animal.
    In addition to the bestiality mentioned above, whales and dolphins have some pretty unsavoury (to humans) habits – gang rape, congeneric non-feeding murder – which ought to be part of any public discussion of their behaviour.

    1. “In addition to the bestiality mentioned above, whales and dolphins have some pretty unsavoury (to humans) habits – gang rape, congeneric non-feeding murder – which ought to be part of any public discussion of their behaviour.”

      True, the majority of humans find such behaviors unsavory, but all of these behaviors occur in humans on a fairly regular basis. And the majority of humans will engage in at least some of these behaviors when exposed to certain situations.

      But your right of course. It is important to realize that these animals are more like us than a children’s story book depiction.

  4. I recall the Atlantis Marine Park in Yanchep, at the northern end of Perth, Western Australia – now shut down. They had several captive dolphins who were so domesticated they couldn’t be returned to the wild, and when Atlantis shut down they were moved to another park, where I saw them. I recall the park commentary being apologetic and explaining how they didn’t take dolphins any more. The dolphins happily performed, but it was sad that they were there only because they couldn’t go back to the wild. And they died of broken hearts in 1999.

  5. I was criticized by my department for interfering in the Shedd’s affairs

    I’m curious what their exact reasoning was for critiquing you, Jerry?

    Were they critiquing the reasoning involved, the decision to write the letter, what?

    It couldn’t just be about “interfering in business”, right?

  6. the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, where the belugas are being held

    sounds like they’ve already been captured, jailed.

  7. Excellent, well balanced commentary. Your department should support a biologist’s concern and ability to communicate it so well to the public.

  8. This is one of the zillions of decisions that will be made in favor of the money interests if Romney is elected, and that outcome seems increasingly likely after Obama’s disturbingly listless debate performance. John Stewart gave a more passionate and insightful defense of progressive ideals in his debate with Bill O’Reilly than Obama did with Romney. Of course, the money also has a good chance of winning against the whales under Obama, but with Romney and the Republicans in power there won’t be any debate or doubt about how to decide issues like this.

    1. John Stewart gave a more passionate and insightful defense of progressive ideals

      …because he is not running for national office.

  9. Not happy to hear about this specific story, but pleased to know your views on the matter. Since coming of age and paying more attention to the world, I have found it very unpleasant to see animals in captivity. Even if there existed the possibility of benefit to humans and/or animals, I think every effort should be made to allow animals to thrive in their natural habitats and only use some form of captivity as an absolute last result, and certainly not for our own entertainment (or profit!).

  10. In the end, it’s all about money—making these animals into clowns to entertain the public. Believe me, that rakes in the cash

    And lets be blunt, it rakes in the cash because of the inhumane and brutal conditions they are being kept in. Those conditions are directly linked to revenue; bigger enclosures cost more money to build and run.

    After all, nobody considers building a ‘swim with the whales’ exhibit where the whales have a 1km by 1km tank. That would certainly more humane. But not revenue-generating.

  11. Absolutely agree with your post, Prof. Coyne. I feel embarrassed for the gung-ho, insensitive and mercenary way our species treats other species. Leave these wonderful creatures alone. I’m happy just knowing they’re out there.

    Here in my neck of the woods (Victoria, Australia) we have the pleasure of watching some marvelous species of whale from publicly maintained vantage points along our shoreline. Often, the whales are so close to shore, one doesn’t need binoculars to enjoy their spectacle.

    See some photos here:

    We don’t bother the whales, and they reward us by visiting every year.

  12. Unfortunately if things don’t get turned around and headed the other direction sometime fairly soon, you’ll probably be doing a 180 on this.

    Once we have pushed belugas to the edge of extinction those who value them will have to campaign to have them captured in a likely futile attempt to prevent losing them forever.

    1. No intelligent Biologist in their right mind supports captive breeding and reintroduction anymore. Most of the time the individuals are shoved back into habitat which was proven to not support them in the first place. Released individuals perish of exactly the same problems faced by native populations.

      They need to solve the habitat, resource and poaching issues before taking that step.

      1. You misinterpret my comment. A nearly certainly pointless, but nothing left to lose, last ditch effort is exactly the scenario I am sarcastically predicting will happen. Not what should happen.

        1. Pre-coffee comment read. My apologies. I am glad it was brought up though, it is the primary argument these days for zoos trying to justify their existence.

          You’re right, it will be a futile effort although I bet by then we’ll be trying to save our own skins as well.

  13. I remember the first time I visited the Shedd Aquarium as an adult. They had built a whole new building for the whales and dolphins. They were fascinating to watch, but those whales were BORED! We saw them fed, with a bunch of small, dead fish dumped into their tank. The whales went after the food excitedly, and they wanted the excitement of the “hunt” to last as long as possible. After taking in a mouthful of fish, they would immediately spit them back out and go after them again. This went on for about an hour, with all the whales in the tank participating. It was remarkable to watch, but also very sad.

  14. is the suffering of an animal of less pressing concern when, like cows, pigs and chickens, they are plentiful and taste good? or when their skin can be fashioned into attractive boots? or when, in the case of lizards, their sufferings provide at least benighted individual with pleasure?

    1. Oh, give me a break. Many people see a difference between killing an animal for food or culling a herd for overpopulation (as is the case for many of my boots, which you of course were careful to name) and confining it for a lifetime of misery in a small pool.

      I presume you don’t wear leather or eat meat.

      And thanks for the gratuitous snark; I do SO enjoy people urinating on my carpet.

      1. The snark was indeed very rude. But I do think the underlying moral question is relevant: what makes belugas more worthy of moral concern than cows? Certainly if the Shedd was raising huge numbers of belugas for food and leather that would be much worse than displaying a few of them, no? Pigs are probably more intelligent than belugas, yet they are typically confined in small cages, and then killed. Why should they receive less consideration than belugas?

        1. Tulse, that’s kind of like saying “which is worse: elder abuse, or child abuse”? If what you’re saying is that meat eaters here are hypocrites, fine. Just say that and I would respect it.

          I was a vegetarian for 20 years before I developed a wheat allergy. We do have an obligation to buy Humane Certified. But that discussion has not much to do with wild animals. Pigs are domesticated and can thrive if treated like pets.

          Wild animals aren’t here to be our “display”. These animals spent millions of years coevolving with their ecosystems. Show some respect.

          1. If what you’re saying is that meat eaters here are hypocrites, fine. Just say that and I would respect it.

            What I’m saying is that it seems profoundly inconsistent intellectually to be outraged at the treatment of one species of mammal, but to accept the same treatment for other species of mammals, species which in some cases may be more intelligent and more “like us”. I suppose one could call that hypocrisy, but that term is rather loaded, and I think it’s best to keep things polite (especially given this is Jerry’s website).

            I’m not sure why domestication is a relevant feature — surely that doesn’t affect the suffering of the individuals, does it? If we raised belugas for food, would that make their confinement ok? As I see it, domestication is largely just a matter of history, and not a morally relevant fact. Certainly we don’t tolerate cruel confinement of pet animals, even though they too are domesticated.

            1. Because first of all, Jerry never said he wasn’t outraged by factory farm cruelty. You’re sort of putting words in hIs mouth and changing the subject.

              Surely you see the difference between a pig and a beluga. A beluga can never be a contented farm animal. Centuries of evolution…..right?

              1. Jerry never said he wasn’t outraged by factory farm cruelty.

                That is absolutely true, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. However, Jerry does have a lot of exotic skin boots from animals that are not typically domesticated, and often posts about meals involving various meats from animals that are almost always factory-raised. Those actions seem, at best, intellectually inconsistent to me with the concern expressed about the confinement of a handful of belugas.

                To be clear, I respect the heck out of Jerry — I think he’s an excellent scientist and great popular communicator. I just find this particular juxtaposition of views inconsistent.

                Surely you see the difference between a pig and a beluga.

                In terms of moral worth or capacity for suffering? No, I don’t. (And surely you would agree that the majority of pigs are confined in situations much worse than the typical public aquarium beluga.)

              2. Tulse – I appreciate your responses; I’ve never heard Jerry mention enjoying factory farmed animals; but let’s stick to the main point I’m trying to make.

                In terms of moral worth or capacity for suffering? No, I don’t. (And surely you would agree that the majority of pigs are confined in situations much worse than the typical public aquarium beluga.)

                No, not in terms of moral worth etc. I think you know what I meant. Why are you avoiding the question? In terms of evolution – domestic farm animals and belugas are nothing alike. It would be like saying it’s just as cruel to keep a cat as a pet as it would a tiger.

                Pigs can be kept as pets and as far as we can tell, enjoy domestic life. Would you angrily object to a farm rescue group that took in an abused factory farm pig and kept it on a large farm? No, you wouldn’t. Because you’re intelligent enough to know that pigs evolved as domestic animals.

                Belugas, as Jerry pointed out, evolved to travel hundreds of miles for food and during specific seasons. These animals cannot thrive in a swimming pool. It’s obscene.

                Quite honestly it sounds more like you’re defending zoos than you are advocating for pigs. Do you not understand what a wild marine mammal is? I think you’re smart enough to know the difference.

              3. Amelie, I think we are talking past each other a bit. I agree that pigs and belugas have very different evolutionary histories, and that what counts as an inhumane or cruel environment must be judged in part on that basis. But I also think I was clear that, for the vast majority of pigs raised for food, their conditions are, under almost any objective standard, far more limited and cruel than that of Shedd belugas, and there are vastly more of them that are affected than all the belugas in captivity.

                As I said, I do understand that domestic animals, because of their evolutionary history, often have different sets of environmental needs than those of wild animals. But I think we can still judge the extent to which those needs are met by standard practices, and I think in many common situations domestic animals, especially food animals, are raised in conditions far worse than those of zoo and aquarium animals.

            2. But Tulse no matter how we squirm around philosophy to qualify “worse” we’re still back to the same questions.

              1. Should pigs be kept in factory farm conditions. Amelie: HELL NO Tulse: HELL NO

              2. Should this scumbag zoo be allowed to take belugas from the wild (or captive breed them) Amelie: HELL NO Tulse: (??)

              You should answer that for yourself. In the end I don’t think one comparison should influence the other in the least.

    2. I think the moral concern is unnecessary suffering. Killing may be more moral compared to torture by confinement, since there is no prolonging of suffering when an animal is killed. I do think we could do better the way we treat livestock confining them to practically immobile their entire lives. Watch Food, Inc.

  15. So why aren’t these happy, captive marine animals just giving the aquariums a steady supply of cute babies to parade before the public? (Believe me, Shedd does try.) I mean, the whales have everything they need!

  16. Solitary confinement for a social animal – I’m sure they’d rather participate in the Japanese whale research program. With over 20 years of allegedly having a captive breeding program, Shedd should just give up the ruse. I wonder what the ratio of failed captive breeding programs to successful programs is – very high is what I suspect.

  17. The only zoos I enjoy going to these days are the “City zoos” where they have sheep, goats, cows, pigs, geese etc for kids to see so that they figure out that milk does not come from a carton.

    For some reason I really like those, especially the ones with the rare breeds. I know the animals there are still in captivity, but they are domesticated breeds, and I do not see this in the same way as wild animals in zoos.

    I know that there is a conservation angle to some zoo animals, but that is not the case with these Beluga who it seems are being used purely to make money because people want to swim with a wild animal in safety, or in the case of dolphins, have some sort of spiritual connection woo.

  18. I think it sucks too. I’ve been to the National Aquarium in Baltimore more times than I can count. The dolphin show is the biggest draw and I’m not sure the aquarium would survive without it. They have a dolphin sleepover (sharks too) for almost $100 per person.

    Along the same line, the last time I was at the zoo I took a picture of a chimpanzee in the dark and dreary Ape House. It was a juvenile and s/he was tearing up cardboard. It really got to me and I took a picture so I wouldn’t forget what I was seeing, a chimpanzee in a large box.

  19. These 18 are going into the same environment that has failed to produce a sustainable captive population. There is also a possibility it could open the door for importation of other wild caught cetaceans, especially orca, whose captive population in America is even smaller than the belugas. I really like the little picture at the end of this article: nice threat gap by that beluga. How many aquarium goers realize that gesture is aggressive? So much for education.

  20. Dear Madscientist: What is the “Japanese whale research program” you mentioned. I was under the impression (fm Capt Watson) that is is the killing of whales for the Japanese food market, nothing more. Do they actually research something in the killing of thousands of whales each year?

    1. No, the Japanese whale “research” program doesn’t do any real research. I believe he meant that a whale would probably prefer a quick death over living its life in solitary confinement in a small pool.

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