Facility Spotlight: Vancouver Aquarium

With a strong focus on research and conservation, the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, first opened its doors in 1956, and have become a progressive and excellent example of which other facilities should aspire to be (or be more like, as different facilities satisfy different niches and/or learning styles). For example, in 1996 they became the first facility to pledge to no longer collect marine mammals from the wild, and other facilities quickly followed.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

The Vancouver Aquarium was also the first facility to, effectively, display a killer whale. Although it was far from an ideal situation as the animal was harpooned for the purpose of being used to create a lifesize model, Moby Doll (as she came to be known) changed the way people viewed this highly misunderstood marine mammal, and we stopped using the species for target practice.

Bill Reid's "Chief of the Undersea World" greets aquarium visitors

Bill Reid’s “Chief of the Undersea World” greets aquarium visitors

Split into several different galleries, including Canada’s Arctic, the Tropic Zone (highlighting the Amazon), Penguin Point, and Treasures of the BC Coast (among others), the Vancouver Aquarium provides a glimpse of the natural world from around the globe.

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An African Penguin at Penguin Point

An African Penguin at Penguin Point

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Home to the only marine mammal rescue centre in Canada (Marineland, who are much closer to a threatened population of beluga whales in the St Lawrence, does not operate one), the Vancouver Aquarium rescues, rehabilitates, and often re-releases around 100 animals each year. Primarily seals, they have also saved otters, sea lions, harbour porpoises, a false killer whale, and even sea turtles who were found far from their preferred tropical climes.  Some of the animals were later deemed non-releaseable by the appropriate government authorities, and the aquarium was able to provide them with a permanent home.

Following her rehabilitation in the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, the Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The “Frogs Forever?” gallery, which spawned the famous ad and internet response below, highlights the global plight of the world’s amphibians, whose numbers are crashing due to pollution, habitat loss, and the spread of chytrid fungus.  Zoological facilities around the world are working to create a modern-day network of arks for the world’s imperiled amphibians, and the Vancouver Aquarium was the first to breed the Northern Leopard Frog.

Save The Frogs

"Unavailable Due To Extinction"

“Unavailable Due To Extinction”

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The aquarium is also home to some animals you wouldn’t expect to see in such a facility, such as macaws, sloths, marmosets, and fruit bats. This helps create a balanced impression of how everything is interconnected.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

Hurricane the sloth

Hurricane the sloth

The Vancouver Aquarium is home to the only two captive Harbour Porpoises in North America, both of whom were found washed up on beaches in poor condition at about 1 month old, and had a very low chance of survival (Daisy in 2008, Jack in 2011). Volunteers at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre worked around the clock to save them, using purpose-built slings to help them float (and breathe). The two were recently moved into the beluga habitat, which has given them more room to exhibit natural behaviours, such as this side-by-side swimming recorded days after the move in January.

Harbour Porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetaceans, yet very little is known about them. As such, Jack and Daisy not only serve as excellent ambassadors for their species (I know tons of people who now love porpoises!), but are also helping scientists understand them better. In 2013, a porpoise named Levi was successfully rescued and re-released, in part due to what was learned from working with Jack and Daisy.

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The many shows and talks are educational in nature, focusing on husbandry procedures (which, inevitably, showcases the bond between the animals and their trainers), the plight of the animals’ wild counterparts, and stories of the often-rescued animals themselves. For example, how Pacific White-Sided Dolphin Helen was found entangled in a fishing net off the coast of Japan (no, NOT Taiji!) and had to have her pectoral fins partially removed.

Helen dolphin

Chester and Hellen

Chester and Helen

The aquarium also has special programming throughout the year, such as Divers Weekend as seen below.  Other examples include “After Hours” adults-only nights, and the always-popular appearances from Scuba Stanta at Christmas.  Darth Vader even made a special appearance once during “Sea Star Wars”.

In 2015, the aquarium performed groundbreaking surgery on a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin named Hana. It was kind of an “all bets are off” situation as she would not have otherwise recovered. Although Hana sadly did not survive her illness, what veterinarians learned may help save other animals in the future.

Hana

Hana

The Vancouver Aquarium conducts research into why Stellar Sea Lion populations have plummeted.  This includes measuring the metabolism of trained sea lions based at an open water research site, and examining sea lion poop.  They discovered that sea lions are increasingly eating lower-nutrient fish as higher-energy fish stocks are depleted.

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

While visiting the Toronto Zoo, I learned that their polar bear cub was being fed formula that the Vancouver Aquarium helped develop due to their expertise and extensive research involving various arctic animals.  Reputable facilities often work together and share information for the greater good.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Up-close with Aurora, a beluga whale.  The Vancouver Aquarium has been involved in extensive research on this threatened species.

Throughout my life I have heard of the aquarium wanting to expand its habitats, but the same activists who scream that they are “too small” and “inhumane” are the same ones who block the aquarium’s efforts to improve at every turn (much like happened with Blue World Project at SeaWorld recently). Which is it?

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Oh, wait, I know… When Chester the false killer whale was found washed up on a beach in Tofino, animal rights activists were calling for his death as it was “more humane” than a second chance at life. Would they say the same thing about a car accident victim who was certain to never walk again? Frankly, having seen Chester in the flesh, I think he is doing just fine.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

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So all in all the Vancouver Aquarium is an excellent facility all-around, despite what they naysayers (who often have not even visited them) arbitrarily nitpick.  It is the place this prairie-raised animal-tech student learned to appreciate the aquatic world, which always seemed to out of reach.  Give them a visit, and you will certainly learn something new about our natural world too.

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Facility Spotlight: Toronto Zoo

The Toronto Zoo, which was born out of the old Riverdale Zoo and officially opened as a new venture in 1974, is Canada’s largest zoo. It is currently home to over 5000 animals from over 450 species.

The Toronto Zoo is incredibly active in global conservation efforts, which includes the breeding of endangered species – most notably they were the first zoo to champion the captive breeding of Black Footed Ferrets, with the intent of re-releasing them into Saskatchewan where they were extinct in the wild. Evidence of their various conservation efforts can be found throughout the zoo in well-marked signs and exhibits.

A window into The Toronto Zoo's conservation efforts

Global amphibian populations are in peril from pollution, habitat loss, and chytrid fungus.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.  Zoos serve as an ark to this species with the hope they can be re-introduced to the wild someday.

The first Burmese Star Tortoise born in captivity

The Burmese Star Tortoise is a critically endangered species now being bred in Canada by the Toronto Zoo

In general the habitats themselves are spacious, attempt to be naturalistic, and have ample enrichment opportunities. The zoo has signage highlighting different kids of enrichment that they provide for the animals, as well as (most importantly) information about their natural habitats and the threats they face in the wild.

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

And perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water ;)

Although, perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water 😉

Notable highlights are the snow leopards and cheetahs. Toronto Zoo is the only facility I have visited where these beautiful cats have been up and active, and indeed it was through visiting this specific zoo that I was able to gain an enhanced appreciation for them.

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

The orangutans have been another highlight over the years.  Although Adelaide Zoo’s (review coming soon!) orangutan habitat is the most naturalistic and aesthetically pleasing, the orangutans at the Toronto Zoo always seem to be getting up to something.  I vividly remember the first time I saw this species — which happened to be at this zoo — when I was perhaps 10.  My dad pointed out their various behaviours while comparing them to humans.  More accurately, to teenagers as one chillaxed on a raised platform while throwing food scraps to the ground.  A few years ago I saw a young one having a ball as he ran around the habitat with a burlap sack over his head.

Toronto Zoo FNF Orangutan habitat

There were two of them playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

There were two playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

In November 2015 one of the Toronto Zoo’s polar bears gave birth. One cub died, and the other had to be taken into human care when it was discovered that the mother not producing milk. Apparently, the Vancouver Aquarium assisted in developing a special formula based on their expertise with seals and other Arctic species. Different facilities have their different strengths, and reputable ones work together sharing information for the greater good.

Toronto Zoo FNF polar bear

Toronto Zoo FNF polar bear habitat

The downside of having visited in winter was a number of exhibits and all the eating establishments with the exception of an express Tim Hortons (where you can get drinks and little else) were closed, and outside of scheduled keeper talks there were no staff on hand to answer any questions one might have. I am told the zoo is a completely different place in the on-season. For a zoo to be as enjoyable and educational visit as it was in the off-season speaks volumes about the facility, and so the zoo itself was well worth a visit at any time of the year.

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Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

 

A side-note on The Toronto Zoo’s elephants.

The Toronto Zoo recently made headlines over the death of a critically endangered African elephant named Iringa.  Prior to the transfer, the treatment of the elephants at the zoo… well, changes depending on who you ask.  But they had been planning to upgrade the habitat.  Animal Rights activists – who have been increasingly targeting any facility with elephants — had lobbied the City of Toronto to have the zoo’s elephants removed, citing unsuitable housing among their many standard complaints.  The city bowed to the activists.  Toronto Zoo staff insisted that the animals should be sent to another zoo with the expertise to care for them, but activists hate all zoos and instead the elephants were sent to PAWS Sanctuary, despite their questionable reputation. As a result, the Toronto Zoo lost its AZA accreditation, and the elephants’ condition quickly deteriorated due to lack of proper care.

Recently, the animals at PAWS were in danger of being killed by wildfire. Due to the facility’s lack of equipment and expertise in proper husbandry procedures, they were unable to get them out (and didn’t seem to be too interested in doing so anyway), and stubbornly refused all outside help. Luckily, none of the animals perished…this time.

It is a sad fact that animal rights activists want to cut off all connections to animals such as elephants.  And they won’t stop there — there is no telling which iconic yet imperiled species will be next.  With wild elephant numbers plummeting ever lower due to poaching, we should be encouraging more people to connect with this species, not taking away one of the best resources of doing so that we have.

Where the Toronto Zoo's elephants once roamed.

Where the Toronto Zoo’s elephant family once roamed.