DVDs will never replace live animals: how the Vancouver Aquarium turns visitors into conservationists

Dec 19 2017, 10:42 am

When an employee published an open letter in support of the Vancouver Aquarium the other week, local activist group No Whales in Captivity was the first to react, asking its followers on Facebook to join the debate by “commenting and blasting this guy out of the water for being one of the biggest whalesh**ers we have ever heard from”.

His crime that created this outrage? He dared to point out some of the good the Aquarium does. He spoke about rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, research and quality of care.

He did a great job in summing up what motivates supporters to defend the Vancouver Aquarium, but one aspect of their work I feel came too short – the most important one in my opinion.

Whether they wish to be educated or not, the Vancouver Aquarium use its influence to educate people more than any other aquarium or marine park. Every facet of their exhibits and interpretive shows is designed around that one goal: to make visitors leave with a better understanding of the animals and their natural habitats, conscious about threats to their survival and our connection to these magnificent creatures, even if they live in places as remote as the Arctic.

You cannot even grab some fish and chips at the café without getting a conservation message with your order.

I have heard inspiring stories of people whose careers were sparked by a visit to the Vancouver Aquarium. These are stories of kids who want to be biologists and scientists when they grow up; stories of volunteers who have dedicated much of their free time to the Aquarium’s mission for decades; stories of families that visit the Aquarium twice a week, whose kids know every corner of the facility, every animal that it provides a home for, and can fill you in with their astonishing knowledge about the creatures living in our oceans.

These people care deeply, are passionate about marine life. And in all these cases it was the connection with animals they saw at the Vancouver Aquarium that inspired that passion.

At the Park Board meeting in late April, Commissioner Constance Barnes argued that children did not need to see live animals to learn about them. She brought up the example of dinosaurs, telling the board that kids knew all about them without ever having seen one alive.

That is a popular example used by the anti-captivity movement. But is it a good one?

What do we really know about dinosaurs, apart from what they might have looked like, millions of years ago? And what difference does it make?

Dinosaurs are dead, gone for good. Dinosaurs inspire a child’s imagination, just like Lego bricks do – but they do not inspire a generation to make a difference, to take action. No child looks at the drawing of a dinosaur and thinks “Hey, this guy needs my help”.

One of the Aquarium’s fiercest long-term critics is Peter Hamilton from Lifeforce, a local advocacy group that has been campaigning against the Aquarium since the 1990s. He wants to see the Aquarium replaced by a ‘waterless education centre’, devoid of living creatures and plant life.

In its place he wants visitors to be inspired by multimedia shows and interactive displays. This idea does not get me very excited.

If you have never seen or even heard of an animal, why would you even care whether its populations are in decline, or what factors play a role in that?

What do those people think it was that inspired today’s most influential conservationists to dedicate their lives to the protection of animals? Did they just watch a movie?

The Aquarium was recently accused by an anti-captivity activist of “turning people into conservationists”. She meant that in a negative way, of course. But that is exactly what the Vancouver Aquarium does – on purpose. It is in fact an important part of their mission.

The Aquarium wants visitors to go home thinking about Hana and Helen, the rescued dolphins, and the 300,000 whales, porpoises and dolphins that share their fate and get entangled and drown in fixed fishing nets every year. And they want people to develop the desire to make a difference, to change their ways, to buy sustainable seafood, to avoid plastic bags, to leave their cars at home, to take up an interest in conservation.

People need to make these connections in order to care. This awareness does not come from nothing, something needs to spark their interest first.

“I think it is time.”, said commissioner Barnes at the Park Board meeting, referring to a proposed phase-out of the Aquarium’s cetacean program. I, too, think that it is time – to wake up.

Feel-good activism does not help a single animal in the wild. While people are busy advocating against the Vancouver Aquarium, whales, porpoises and dolphins are dying in their natural habitats at a frightening rate. And they are not alone.

The loss of biodiversity this planet is facing does not stop on the beach. We are polluting our oceans, scraping all life from the sea floor to make fishing more profitable, and erasing whole populations to get access to cheap seafood. We are invading even the most pristine marine habitats in pursuit of higher profits, criss-crossing the vulnerable habitats of marine mammals with noisy boats and tankers. We are slowly turning our oceans into a living hell.

It is time to give up the misguided idea that releasing all marine mammals would be a solution to anything. Empty the tanks – and then what? Where would future generations be inspired to join the conservation movement? Where would veterinarians learn how to treat and care for cetaceans, like Levi the stranded harbour porpoise that the Aquarium successfully rehabilitated and released last year? Where would rescued but non-releasable animals end up?

These animals play an absolutely vital role for the Aquarium’s mission. Their release would help nobody, least the animals that activists would like to see dumped into the ocean, or their wild counterparts.

We need to open our eyes to that reality, and concentrate on the bigger picture. The Vancouver Aquarium is leading the way, and, if anything, they deserve our support. They certainly have mine.


Marcus Wernicke is a volunteer at the Vancouver Aquarium. As a gallery educator he talks to visitors about research, conservation and the threats that animals face in the wild.


Featured Image: Vancouver Aquarium sea turtle via Shutterstock

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