Animal Rescue, Daisy the Harbour Porpoise, and Saving the Vaquita In Her Name

Even before the sad news of 9-year old Daisy the Harbour Porpoise’s death, this couldn’t be stated enough: “Every animal matters.”

No, that isn’t the mantra of an animal rights group like PETA (who kill 97% of the animals taken into their “care”), but the oft-repeated sentiment of the Vancouver Aquarium and their supporters as the Park Board voted to ban all new cetaceans from entering the aquarium.

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Daisy (bottom) and Jack

This decision means that animals like porpoises Daisy and Jack, and false killer whale Chester, all of whom were found washed up on beaches at about 1 month of age, will now have to be “euthanised” on the spot instead of being taken to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre and given a chance at life. The aquarium must be able to provide a long-term home to animals deemed non-releasable by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  As the only facility of its kind in Canada, that ability has been lost.

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Baby Daisy. Credit: Vancouver Aquarium

Clearly, these animals do NOT matter to the Park Board, who have been asked countless times if the “experts” they claimed to consult included the DFO. Their silence could seen as an answer in itself. A so-called humane society was among the many who praised the ban while implying it doesn’t matter because (paraphrasing collective statements from them and others) “not that many cetaceans are treated at the MMRC anyway”. But the number is irrelevant: these animals matter. All of them.

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This figure ignores attempted rescues and all other strandings. Only those who survive long enough to enter long-term treatment are “counted.”

Daisy was an ambassador to her species in every sense of the word. What her caregivers learned from her directly contributed to the successful re-release of Levi. And then there are those she inspired: she stole the hearts of myself and countless others, and we love with the often-overlooked porpoise family as a direct result of interacting with her. Some of us are now taking action to save the critically endangered vaquita as part of that newfound love. Even Daisy contributed to vaquita conservation efforts.

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The day I fell in love with porpoises

Returning animals like Daisy to the wild is always the goal, but it isn’t always possible.  For those who call facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium home, while their lives may be different to that of their wild counterparts, that does not make them any less meaningful. Their trainers and tankmates are their friends and family. They have toys, affection, better medical care than many humans receive, and they never go hungry.  They even participate in research that can improve the lives of their increasingly imperiled wild counterparts, and increase the likelihood of successful rehabilitations.

The people at the Vancouver Aquarium are the true activists, knowing all the animals who have a chance at life deserve that life…and working to make it happen. Every one that needs to be shot on the beach because of this shortsighted law is one too many. Please, as the Vancouver Aquarium fights the ban in court, continue to let the Park Board know you oppose their decision.

And then, please help save the vaquita. For those Daisy touched, fighting to save the vaquita in her name is perhaps one of the best ways we can honour her memory.  For without her we might not care in the first place.

Rest in peace, sweet Daisy.  May your memory live on through those you inspired.

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Further reading:
Porpoise Conservation Society

Euthanasia, Humane Killing, and the Vancouver Aquarium

 

Euthanasia, Humane Killing, and the Vancouver Aquarium

Vancouver’s Park Board is looking to completely end the display of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium. That includes rescued and rehabilitated animals like harbour porpoise Daisy and false killer whale Chester.  Both were found beached and near death as infants, and were taken into care at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (which, incidentally, is the only one of its kind in Canada).  The government later deemed them non-releasable.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

Chester leaping before a show

While animal rights activists celebrate, scientists warn bans like this could do more harm than good.   Among other things, if the Vancouver Aquarium is no longer able to provide a permanent home for cetaceans who are deemed non-releasable, “…the DFO would have to look at alternatives such as euthanasia,” according to Dr John Ford of the Department of Fisheries.

But is euthanasia the correct term?  In a research environment (where much of my training lies), the distinction between Euthanasia and something referred to as Humane Killing (or Culling) is roughly as follows: Euthanasia is undertaken for the animal’s benefit, usually to end explicit suffering.  Humane Killing is undertaken for our benefit and convenience, such as when an animal is no longer needed for breeding.  Both are conducted as fast and painlessly as possible — it is merely the motive that differs.

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Helen was found entangled in a fishing net off the coast of Japan, and was deemed non-releasable following a lengthy rehabilitation. Her pectoral fins had to be partially amputated.

But who benefits from stripping current animals of their home and leaving future ones to die? Politicians. In this case, the Vancouver Park Board.

As election time approached in 2014, Vision Vancouver-run Park Board Commissioner Constance Barnes infamously compared cetacean captivity to slavery before banning breeding.  Vision Vancouver lost the Park Board that election, and the Aquarium-supporting NPA immediately reversed Vision’s rulings, stating “I think it’s an emotional issue, and I think we recognize that the aquarium provides a lot of good in terms of research, conservation and education programs and we want to see that work continue.”  But election time is coming up again, and Commissioner Stuart Mackinnin used renewed outrage following the deaths of belugas Qila and Aurora to do a fast 180 and one-up scrapping the breeding program by moving to ban cetaceans entirely.  He even suggested he doesn’t care where the animals go so long as they’re off Park Board-controlled lands. Out of sight, out of mind…and into office.

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One has to wonder…

Activists claim the animals are suffering in captivity, but science says otherwise.  And there are tangible benefits to having cetaceans live in facilities such as the Vancouver Aquarium that directly benefit their wild counterparts.  Helen, for example, participates in research studies that could help prevent the approximately 1000 marine mammals from becoming entangled in fishing nets as bycatch every day.  Meanwhile, Daisy is helping save the critically endangered Vaquita. Not to mention, animals are given a chance at life who otherwise wouldn’t have one.  And if all cetaceans are “euthanised” on the spot to “save” the few who can’t be, success stories like Levi’s will be a thing of the past.  (see: This Dolphin Didn’t Have To Die)

The Vancouver Aquarium is asking people to send letters of support for the work they do.  And voice that support for them on social media, perhaps highlighting how they have inspired you.

To the politicians, this isn’t about the animals’ welfare.  It’s about notoriety and votes.  Don’t let them meddle in the lives of these animals purely for their own gain.  The future of cetacean conservation and rescue in Canada could depend on it.

Related:
Remembering Qila and Aurora Through Those They Inspired
Rest In Peace Jack, and May Your Legacy Live On

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Remembering Qila and Aurora Through Those They Inspired (Vancouver Aquarium)

November 26: 2016 Original blog post from 2 days ago has been amended to reflect updated events.

After the recent loss of Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium (who in some ways I watched grow up alongside my evolving view of belugas from “boring” to “beautiful”), shortly followed by the news that her mother Aurora passed from the same illness following heroic efforts to save her, I was reminded of a Skytrain ride conversation I overheard in which someone had clearly been inspired by these two animals.

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A very young Qila with her mother, Aurora

On this commute a small child was gushing to his grandfather about beluga whales. How cool they are, how their home is melting, how pollution makes them “poisonous” (toxic), how he’s going to write about belugas for school and tell his classmates, and how he wants to raise money to help them. His grandfather smiled and asked if he knew the Vancouver Aquarium had beluga whales. “YEAH!!! Auntie took me! That’s how I know this!” and on and on he went.  If he paused to take a breath, I would be surprised.

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Qila breaching. Photo available here, here, and here.

Qila and Aurora played a direct role in inspiring the child above. Although many people do visit zoos and aquariums to be entertained, connecting with these animal ambassadors provides a tactile experience that can touch both mind and heart in ways books and television often can’t.

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And for those who aren’t inspired, the money they spend on admission, food, and souvenirs still helps fund conservation and research projects, of which the Vancouver Aquarium has many.

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Up close with Aurora

So like Jack the Harbour Porpoise, may Qila and Aurora live on through those they touched and inspired, and the wild belugas whose lives may be saved as a result.  They will without doubt be dearly missed by their dedicated carers, and aquarium visitors as well.

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Rest In Peace Jack, and May Your Legacy Live On. (Vancouver Aquarium)

Saddened by the news out of the Vancouver Aquarium that harbour porpoise Jack has passed away.

RIP Jack

Jack was found washed up on a beach in 2011, when he was about 5 weeks old. He was taken in to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for intensive care. Later deemed non-releasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (not by the aquarium itself, as is commonly believed in these cases), he was introduced to Daisy, another harbour porpoise who was found and saved under similar circumstances.

Together, these two animals became ambassadors for their species and reinforced in my mind the importance of zoos and aquariums. Although I have loved whales and dolphins since I was a child, porpoises never crossed my mind… until “meeting” Daisy for the first time. A new porpoise lover was created. And I’m not alone — I know countless people who came to love these animals only after watching the playful, interactive antics of Jack and Daisy at the aquarium.

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Harbour porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetacean, and yet little is known about them (if anything, you are likely to catch only a fleeting glimpse of one’s back-end as it swims away). What the aquarium learned from caring for Jack and Daisy helped in the re-release of another porpoise named Levi, and will also help future animals in need.

RIP Jack. You will be missed by many, but your legacy will live on through people you inspired.

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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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