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Vancouver Aquarium’s Belugas Showing Key Signs of Stress, Boredom, Experts Say

| Larry Pynn, The Province
Topics: belugas, Captivity Industry

This article is an excellent discussion of the problems of keeping beluga whales in captivity.  Like orcas and dolphins, beluga whales also are adapted to complex ocean ecosystems and have a rich family life.  Captivity deprives belugas of those two most important things in their lives.  The result is animals that are under stress and bored, and therefore do not live very long in captivity.

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The Vancouver Aquarium sees a beautiful white beluga, well fed, medically sound, engaged with trainers and swimming through a habitat free of predators.

Critics experienced in animal behaviour see a marine mammal exhibiting repetitive behaviour — also known as stereotypy — and call it a damning indictment on keeping cetaceans in captivity.

“They’re trapped,” said Rebecca Ledger, an expert in animal behaviour, during a visit to the aquarium with The Province. “Psychologically, they are not fulfilled and are behaving abnormally. That’s sad, especially since these are very intelligent animals. We’re not talking about cockroaches, we’re talking about cetaceans.”

Stereotypy can be a potentially self-injurious, highly repetitive behaviour — such as a polar bear pacing in a zoo — and can be evidence of everything from boredom to stress.

The younger of the aquarium’s two female belugas, Qila, regularly swims one length of its pool upright and the other length upside down, often surfacing at the same point for a breath.

But the aquarium says stereotypy behaviour is not an automatic sign of poor animal welfare.

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The International Marine Mammal Project supports retiring captive beluga whales to sea pens, where they can live out a more natural life than in small concrete tanks.  

IMMP was successful, with our Coalition partners, in blocking import of 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia in the US , and our Coalition has recently urged the US National Marine Fisheries Service to declare beluga populations in Russia’s Sakhalin Bay-Amur River as “depleted,” and therefore off limits to US aquariums. 



Photo credit Razvan Marescu.