Captivity is not conservation

by Nicole Rivard

Today is National Wildlife Day, which was started to honor the late Steve Irwin and to make people aware of the alarming numbers of endangered animals and habitats and to compel them to get involved in conservation.

For me, it also begs the question, why do humans still think it is appropriate to keep wildlife in captivity—forcing them to live dismal, monotonous lives—instead of allowing them to flourish in their own way in the wild? We know too much about the emotional and social lives of animals to justify putting animals on display for entertainment and profit under the guise of research, education and conservation.

That’s why it was disheartening to learn that last Friday, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approved Mystic Aquarium’s request for a research permit to import five beluga whales from a facility in Canada( a country that recently passed a Free Willy law that makes it illegal for new facilities to hold whales and other marine mammals captive, except for rescues, rehab, research or when deemed in the animal’s “best interest.”)

Mystic currently has three belugas in its Alaskan Coast exhibit at the aquarium, which typically sees 800,000 visitors a year.

You would think after all these years of “doing research” on belugas Kela, 29, Natasha, 29 and Juno, 18, scientists at Mystic would understand what belugas need to thrive—lots of space and socialization. In the wild, beluga whales are extremely social. Their pods range from a few fellow belugas to hundreds of individuals.

Mystic Aquarium may boast it has the largest outdoor beluga habitat in the country, but when I recently went to check it out for myself, I discovered a bathtub compared to what they would have in the wild.

What struck me was not only how small it was but how shallow it was. Yes, belugas will navigate in both shallow river mouths and estuaries during the summer. But during other seasons, they are found in deeper waters, diving to 1,000-meter depths for periods of up to 25 minutes. The deepest record dive was to 3,300 feet.

Belugas inhabit the Arctic and subarctic regions of Russia, Greenland, and North America and some populations are strongly migratory, moving north in the spring and south in the fall as the ice forms in the Arctic. In the summer, they are often found near river mouths, and sometimes even venture more than 600 miles upriver in the Yukon River.

I wondered how many repetitive circles Kela, Natasha and Juno would have to swim around their tank to equal the miles of waterways taken from them.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, as an impatient visitor who was waiting for her child to get a better view of the belugas commented: “They seem to be swimming in similar circles. Circle. Circle. Circle.”

Missed opportunities

I stayed in the vicinity for over almost two hours, listening to the commentary of other guests, trying to stay optimistic that people were going to leave Mystic with enough knowledge about belugas to get invested in protecting and recovering them in the wild.

Every 20 minutes or so, staff members provided a canned speech about belugas. I wasn’t impressed—they only mentioned Kela, Natasha and Juno’s age, weight, where they were from, that they don’t have dorsal fins and that they have a blubber for insulation.

They neglected to mention that Cook Inlet belugas in Alaska are critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act because of hunting, which ceased in 2005. But even when the hunting stopped, they never recovered as their population continues to get entangled in fishing gear and they grapple with noise pollution, which interferes with the whales’ ability to communicate, navigate and find food. The Cook Inlet population lives in Alaska’s most densely populated region, which is particularly noisy, because it supports ship traffic, oil and gas exploration, construction and other noisy human activities like boating.

Mystic mentioned none of this and missed an opportunity to educate people about concrete ways to help belugas and other marine animals by adopting a plant-based lifestyle; working to get legislation passed to ban oil and gas exploration in the Arctic; and limiting human activity near important marine mammal feeding areas.

Instead, people checked seeing belugas off their list of things to do at Mystic without really seeing or getting to know them, and then it was off to touching the sting rays.

What’s also disappointing is that Mystic is using research to justify the harm that it will be inflicting by taking in more belugas. Yet, if you visit the NOAA website anyone can read about how the game-changing research to help belugas in the wild is being done by studying them in the wild.

Like Jacques Costeau said: “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.”

And because of technology improvements, studying belugas and other marine mammals in the wild is much easier than it used to be.

Mystic trying to stay afloat

Perhaps Mystic has become more motivated by its own survival than by conservation. It ran a deficit of $2.5 million in 2017, according to its last publicly available tax filing. And the aquarium knows how popular the beluga exhibit is.

That may be why Mystic has posters on display advertising coming attractions, including a beluga encounter where visitors could get “nose to nose” with a beluga for $179.

Before I left, I overheard a child asking her mom where the belugas went because she couldn’t seem them on the surface of the water.

She replied: “They’re down below making other visitors happy,” referring to an area of the tank where there was an underwater viewing area.

I cringed thinking that that is the message that people leave places like Mystic with. That it’s ok for wild animals to be in captivity—as if it’s their responsibility or purpose in life to entertain humans.

We need to do better

I also heard a woman telling a penguin to “shake it, shake it, shake it, but don’t break it” further along in the Alaskan Coast exhibit and that put me over the edge. I felt disgusted by an overall lack of respect for the animals. All too often I heard them referred to as things.

As I made my way to the underwater viewing area, a crowd had gathered, waiting their socially distanced turn to take a selfie as the belugas swam by, sometimes stopping to press their beautiful melon head to the glass. The irony is belugas’ facial structure makes it look like they’re smiling and happy living without their wildness, which makes them whole.

I felt sad. And angry. I thought of how during the pandemic humans have been complaining about feeling lonely and isolated in quarantine. Yet that is the norm for wildlife in captivity.

As families posed for pictures, I thought to myself—shame on Mystic. A photo op is not research or conservation, unless you are researching how to make more money.

Captivity strips wild animals of their dignity. Human animals should be capable of doing better—it’s time to redefine family entertainment.

Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 24 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.