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Belugas Now Imprisoned in Connecticut Deserve Better Than Life in a Tank

By Jake Davis

UPDATE 8/27/21: Since we first published this post, one beluga has become sick and one has died. Anyone with a shred of common sense knows it is the captivity itself that is causing Mystic Aquarium’s belugas to perish. Still, Mystic Aquarium tries to justify its continued imprisonment of these magnificent beings by arguing that it “is the best possible location for these animals: a world-class facility with decades of marine mammal experience and a top-level understanding of beluga health.” This reasoning is as sad and pathetic as the belugas’ current living conditions. 

The best possible location for any marine mammal is the ocean, period. If a return to the wild cannot be had, a sanctuary is the next best option. An aquarium is never “the best possible location.” Whales in particular have evolved to swim for miles in straight lines, dive hundreds of feet, eat live prey, live with family members and travel the seas free of barriers. Whales did not evolve to languish in concrete tanks, be transported by airplane, and be handled by cranes.

As lawyer Pablo N. Buompadre said in his arguments in Toti the chimpanzee’s case, “‘[c]aptivity’ is a sufficiently graphic word to know what zoos hide: suffering and annulment of the animal’s own will, their own needs, and instincts. Public or private, safari-style or in urban centers, terrestrial or aquatic. There are many formulas to justify the unjustifiable, that a being must spend its entire life confined in a space that is not its own or natural.” 

Mystic Aquarium’s own “formula” of excusing its imprisonment of whales in order to help those in the wild fails every test of reason. As shown throughout history and emphasized by the recent illnesses in this facility, Mystic Aquarium’s whales are suffering immensely from the deprivation of their physical and psychological freedom, all for the aquarium’s benefit. It is time to awaken to the reality that there is no justification for the continued imprisonment and exploitation of whales. 

As Jacques Cousteau once 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.” The same is true of beluga whales, especially today in light of the advancements made to research methods used to study these majestic beings in the wild without interfering with their lives.

Yet, in a closed-door proceeding a few weeks ago, the Hon. Bernadette Jordan, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, approved an export permit requested by Marineland of Canada to transfer five belugas to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

Just two years ago the Parliament of Canada passed Bill S-203, the “Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act.” In short, the bill makes it illegal to import or export captive whales while also making it illegal to breed whales in captivity. The lone exceptions are (a) for research purposes or (b) if it is in the best interest of the animal. The bill appeared to be a watershed moment for the captive whale trade in Canada; its passage was universally praised by animal welfare organizations worldwide. Unfortunately, as the Canadian government showed, appearances can be deceptive.

To keep the export from taking place, organizations fought on both sides of the border. In Canada, Last Chance for Animals urged the Canadian government to deny the export permit because it was in direct contravention of Canada’s new law. Stateside, Friends of Animals (FoA) urged the denial of the import permit because the conditions of the permit (that Mystic can neither breed the whales nor let them interact directly with the public) are meaningless since these conditions apply only for five years. In just five short years, FoA argued, these belugas will no longer be “research subjects,” making them exempt from exploitative breeding or entertainment practices like they would be had they remained in Canada. FoA also noted that the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires an import of this nature to be in the best interest of the belugas.

Still, District of Connecticut Judge Alvin Thompson found all arguments on behalf of the belugas to be unavailing, or without merit. As a result, on May 14, 2021, the five belugas arrived in Connecticut.

As NhRP Director of Government Relations Courtney Fern wrote in our response to the Boston Globe’s coverage of this story, the moment captured in the lead photo–showing a beluga suspended in a sling while surrounded by tens of hard-hatted aquarium employees–is not something to marvel at or celebrate. Rather, it marks the beluga’s first day in yet another prison. Servitude will define the belugas’ lives in Connecticut as it did in Canada.

In striking contrast to the total lack of freedom endured by belugas and other whales in aquariums like Marineland and Mystic, Canada is soon to be home to North America’s first whale sanctuary, a place where, as early as 2022, belugas will be able to live freely and with respect and dignity. Instead, at Mystic, these highly intelligent and social beings who evolved to live freely in the ocean—an expansive and complex physical and social environment—will be forced to live as research subjects in concrete pools, which are widely known to cause belugas extreme psychological and physical harm. As the Executive Director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, Charles Vinick, noted in this recent webinar, the belugas now imprisoned at Mystic Aquarium could have been candidates for release to the WSP’s sanctuary in Nova Scotia (“We would certainly welcome the opportunity to be working with Marineland of Canada,” Vinick added).

In a telling statement, Dr. Allison Tuttle, who heads the zoological operations at Mystic Aquarium, said she believes the five belugas her organization imported will do just fine because they will receive “a tongue rub or a fun toy to play with.”

“A tongue rub and fun toy to play with” can never replace the belugas’ natural habitat or their innate needs. Dr. Tuttle’s commentary echoes the cognitive dissonance attributable to many zoo and aquarium staffers, who say they love animals yet actively work to maintain their imprisonment. It also provides more evidence about how the United States’ weak and poorly enforced animal welfare laws result in the suffering of these and other highly social and cognitively complex beings. Furthermore, as noted by FoA, “Mystic is claiming its research is urgent and necessary to prevent belugas from going extinct in the wild. Yet, anyone can visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website and read about how the game-changing research to help the Cook Inlet belugas in Alaska, who are critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act, is being done by studying them in the wild.”

At the Nonhuman Rights Project we are all too familiar with self-serving commentary like Dr. Tuttle’s, the harm that befalls self-aware, autonomous nonhuman animals bred for profit and forced to languish in captivity, and the apparent unwillingness of the Connecticut courts to protect these beings. For decades, the Commerford Zoo, a traveling circus based in Goshen, CT, exploited our elephant clients Beulah, Karen, and Minnie while, with the exception of a handful of elected officials, the powers that be looked the other way. As we explain in this blog, the Connecticut courts refused even to allow a full and fair hearing on the merits of their elephant rights case. Today Minnie is the only Commerford elephant still alive, and evidence of the failures of the USDA and other entities to properly investigate the Commerford Zoo continues to mount.

Although we applaud the activists who fought on behalf of these belugas, the evidence is clear that welfare laws do not protect cetaceans from pain, suffering and loneliness; at best they provide a temporary respite from the physical and emotional trauma that results from their imprisonment and exploitation. The only way to truly protect a being’s fundamental interests is to recognize their rights. This is true of humans and nonhuman animals alike. At the NhRP we will steadfastly continue our work to prevent businesses like Mystic Aquarium and the Commerford Zoo from exploiting and imprisoning self-aware, autonomous nonhuman animals by demanding recognition and protection of their fundamental right to bodily liberty. More specifically, right now we are in the early stages of preparing litigation on behalf of imprisoned cetaceans as we closely follow the Whale Sanctuary Project’s important progress.

Ultimately, the simple truth is that human beings need to stop subjugating belugas and other nonhuman animals and recognize that labels such as “research” and “conservation” are no justification for their cruel imprisonment.

How you can help: Follow and support the work of the Whale Sanctuary Project, whose mission is to establish a model seaside sanctuary where orcas and beluga whales can be rehabilitated or can live permanently in an environment that maximizes well-being and autonomy and is as close as possible to their natural habitat. 

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