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ELIZABETH HUBLEY: Free our whales, dolphins

FILE PHOTO: The Senate is debating a bill to outlaw keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. ©THE GUARDIAN/File
FILE PHOTO: The Senate is debating a bill to outlaw keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. ©THE GUARDIAN/File

‘Entertainment’ of watching mammals swim circles in concrete tanks should be ending

I remember the days on P.E.I. when the circus would come to town. Children would ride the elephants, and Islanders marveled at the wild animals performing tricks under the big top.

But circuses like that have gone the way of the dinosaur. Now most traveling circuses focus on human performers, like acrobats, clowns, and tightrope walkers, to entertain the audience. Here on P.E.I., the province took the extra step of actually banning exotic animal circuses in its new Animal Welfare Act, passed by the legislature in June of this year. We were the first province to put it into law.

And rightly so. Many people believe that it’s unacceptable to make wild animals entertain us, forcing them to do stunts so far outside their natural behaviour. We’ve gotten rid of the traditional circus as a result. So why are whales and dolphins still forced to perform tricks for our amusement?

Former Nova Scotia senator Willie Moore asked that same question, and he has been trying to create a federal law ever since. He introduced Bill S-203, Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, which would do exactly as it sounds: phase out the captivity of whales and dolphins. Legally, it would amend Canada’s animal cruelty laws, but still allow for rescuing and rehabilitating injured whales and dolphins. The bill would also allow owners of currently captive whales and dolphins to keep them but not breed them.

The Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, of which I was deputy chair until my recent retirement, has been studying this bill since February. We had 16 meetings on the subject, and heard from countless experts from Canada and abroad about the well-being of whales and dolphins in captivity. Highly-qualified experts on both sides of the issue stated their case for and against the bill. We heard the bill had flaws, but we also heard how it could be fixed. Opinions often differed and, to my disappointment, caused tempers to occasionally flare at our witnesses. We were dealing with a very serious issue, but sometimes it felt like a real circus.

But in all the discussion, one view was made clear to me: whales and dolphins do not belong in tanks. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence, began her career by doing research on captive whales and dolphins. She studied things like self-awareness to see if dolphins can understand who they are. It’s easy for humans - when you see yourself in a mirror, you think, “Hey, that’s me.” But would a dolphin? So Dr. Marino set up mirrors, and yes, dolphins think, “Hey, that’s me”, just like we do.

It made Dr. Marino think differently about keeping whales and dolphins in tanks. She testified, “I started to really think about what life would be like in a small, concrete tank, going around and around and around, if you were a self-aware being. I didn't feel very good about what that felt like.”

In the end, I could not ignore that the witnesses who testified against the bill were those working at aquariums, or with them to do research. Other well-respected researchers and experts in animal behaviour and marine biology urged us to pass S-203. Thousands and thousands of Canadians from across the country sent me emails urging the Senate to pass the bill. So I argued with my Conservative colleagues that passing this bill is the right thing to do for whales and dolphins.

But their opposition on the committee is stalling the Whale Bill, and may still kill it outright. The reasons puzzle me; their arguments against the legislation can all be corrected by amendments, just as Willie Moore told us months ago. Conservative senators are right now supporting Senator MacDonald’s bill to ban shark fin imports, and Senator Stewart Olsen’s bill to ban cosmetic product testing on animals. Why not protect whales and dolphins?

Canada has to do more and this is our opportunity. The Fisheries Committee is scheduled to meet on Tuesday evening about the Whale Bill. I am pleased that Sen. Murray Sinclair took over the bill when Willie Moore retired. Sen. Sinclair is a fierce advocate, and he made it known that he is ready to put forward the necessary amendments. I hope that my old colleagues will do the right thing and pass the bill.

Times change and the entertainment value of watching whales and dolphins swim circles in concrete tanks should be ending. Just like this legislative circus.

- Elizabeth Hubley is a retired Island Liberal senator and the former deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. The committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday evening to decide what to do about the whales and dolphins bill.

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