Canada's Original Think Tank

Second reading of Bill S-203, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts (ending the captivity of whales and dolphins)

Second reading of Bill S-203, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts (ending the captivity of whales and dolphins)

Second reading of Bill S-203, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts (ending the captivity of whales and dolphins)

Second reading of Bill S-203, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts (ending the captivity of whales and dolphins)


Published on 23 November 2016
Hansard and Statements by Senator Wilfred Moore (retired)

Hon. Wilfred P. Moore:

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in final reply to Bill S-203, the ending the captivity of whales and dolphins act.

This bill proposes to phase out the captivity of whales, dolphins and porpoises in Canada, with an exception for rescues and rehabilitation. The bill would achieve this result by exercising the federal powers over international trade, animal cruelty and marine mammals in coastal waters.

I’ve argued that keeping whales in display tanks is an unjustifiably cruel practice; others have disagreed. Thankfully, the Senate of Canada is a place where such debates can take place. I too offer my thanks to members of the chamber for their patience in our deliberations yesterday. I hope that this place continues to operate under the principles of respect and civil dialogue by which we are all bound.

The question before us — Should whales and dolphins be kept in display tanks? — is a moral one, but it must be informed by scientific evidence. Collectively known as cetaceans, these creatures constitute a distinct biological group. They share characteristics such as high-level intelligence, emotions, sociability, complex communication ability and roaming lifestyles. In the view of many, such characteristics oblige us to extend these creatures moral consideration.

That is why Bill S-203 seeks to grant whales and dolphins reasonable protections under Canadian law. Specifically, Bill S- 203 seeks to protect them from suffering the harms of captivity. Those harms include confinement, isolation, health problems, reduced lifespans, high infant mortality rates and sensory deprivation, which must be acute for creatures that experience the world through echolocation.

If Bill S-203 passes, the live captures of whales and dolphins will be illegal except in the case of rescued species. As well, the trade and captive breeding of live cetaceans will be prohibited, and live entertainment shows will require a provincial licence.

In this chamber, the main objection to Bill S-203 has been the claim that it will interfere with scientific research that is crucial for conservation efforts. Even if this claim was sound, and it is not, the research argument mischaracterizes the captivity industry.

The vast majority of captive whales and dolphins in Canada play no role in scientific research. Over 50 beluga whales and dolphins, and one isolated orca, are kept at Marineland, an amusement park in Niagara Falls. Their purpose there is exclusively for entertainment. Phil Demers, a former head trainer at Marineland, told us that the whales are trained using starvation and fed fish containing Valium. I mentioned this previously and would have expected opponents of Bill S-203 to comment.

The Vancouver Aquarium has a much smaller operation. They hold only four cetaceans. Of these four, three were rescued and retained because they could not be released into the wild, which this bill would continue to allow. The remaining beluga, Aurora, was captured near Churchill, Manitoba, in 1990. She was taken from her family in the wild to be used for captive breeding with American theme parks, where the Vancouver Aquarium has additional whales on loan. Aurora has witnessed the death of all of her offspring, including Qila, who died last week. Aurora, we found out yesterday, is dying in the Vancouver Aquarium as we speak. The staff of the aquarium is of course doing what they can, but the fact remains that Aurora has spent her life in captivity for the purpose of breeding and entertainment and will also die in captivity.

Honourable senators, whale captivity is not primarily about research; it’s about revenue. Perhaps that is why many scientists, including Dr. Jane Goodall, oppose the captivity of whales and dolphins. As you know from a letter I circulated, 20 world- renowned marine biologists have endorsed Bill S-203. I will read from that letter:

[Toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises] are among the most intelligent and socially complex mammals. As marine mammal biologists, we believe that [these] species inherently cannot fully adapt to confinement in zoos and aquariums. All [these species] are wide-ranging and share certain biological and ecological characteristics that do not allow them to thrive in zoos and aquariums, and this is particularly true for the larger species such as orcas.

The letter continues:

When dolphins were first commercially displayed to the public some 80 years ago, the world knew little about their ecology and behaviour. Much of what researchers have learned about [them] in the following decades came from studying them in captivity. However, studies on free-ranging animals, starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s and continuing to today, have greatly expanded knowledge on [toothed whale, dolphin and porpoise] biology and ecology. At a minimum, the maintenance of [these species] in commercial captive display facilities for entertainment purposes is no longer supported or justified by the growing body of science on their biological needs.

Honourable senators, this letter should be enough to send this bill to the Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. But there is more.

Dr. Sidney Holt, another supporter of Bill S-203, is one of the most influential marine biologists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Dr. Holt helped end commercial whaling and has held senior positions at the United Nations, the International Whaling Commission, and the University of Cambridge. In support of this bill, Dr. Holt wrote the following:

The aquarium industry attempts to justify the captivity of whales and dolphins as a means of “obtaining crucial scientific knowledge” for their conservation, but this is generally false.

I do not know of a commercial or other public aquarium where it could be justly claimed that its activities were important for the conservation of the species it held. There are certainly interesting observations that have been made but not, as far as I know, any that have contributed meaningfully. Claims that research performed on captive animals is for their benefit are specious, at best.

Captivity is by no means a requirement for us to continue to learn about these animals. There are, in fact, other proven, more ethical ways of performing research with whales and dolphins that do not require a life in captivity and are more likely to provide information that is directly relevant to their life in the wild. For example, I and many others have conducted productive research on bottlenose dolphins in lagoons, from which they could escape, and return, at will.

In the case of highly migratory cetaceans such as belugas, who are used to traveling vast distances, to be held in ponds, pools, and tanks is, I think, a special form of cruelty. No one has ever produced a compelling reason to justify such treatment — certainly not a scientific or conservation-based reason.

As I said, Dr. Jane Goodall has expressed support for the policies contained in Bill S-203, and I quote her:

The current permission of Vancouver Aquarium [beluga] breeding programs on-site, and at SeaWorld with belugas on loan, is no longer defensible by science. This is demonstrated by the high mortality rates evident in these breeding programs and by the ongoing use of these animals in interactive shows as entertainment. . . . The phasing out of such . . . programs is a natural progression of human-kind’s evolving view of our non-human animal kin.

We should hear from all sides on this issue. I hope to see a thorough scientific debate at the Fisheries and Oceans Committee, with experts presenting and testing the evidence. I want to hear what the scientists have to say, particularly to each other.

I also hope Marineland will welcome the opportunity to publicly describe the social value of its activities. It is worthy to note that the State of California passed a law similar to Bill S-203 on September 13, 2016, and that SeaWorld supported that legislation.

Currently, Canada’s criminal laws prohibit cruelty to animals, including specific practices such as fighting or baiting animals, or releasing birds and then shooting them. Bill S-203 would prohibit additional particularly cruel practices, namely breeding cetaceans or taking new individuals into captivity, except for rescues. As with other animal cruelty laws, this is a moral condemnation of a cruel practice with an appropriate sanction.

For the record, I would support the committee amending the penalty to a summary conviction with a substantial fine, sufficient to deter and condemn the keeping and breeding of cetaceans in captivity. Further, if the committee does not believe breeding whales constitutes animal cruelty, I expect the committee will exercise its independent judgment. The other restrictions proposed in Bill S- 203, notably imports and exports, require no changes to the Criminal Code. That is my position, which is now on record.

No legal expertise is required to determine whether cetacean captivity is cruel. Colleagues, this is a moral and scientific question, and the Fisheries and Oceans Committee is best positioned to make that assessment.

Supporters of Bill S-203 include Dr. Marc Bekoff of the Jane Goodall Institute; Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Director of the CCN- distributed documentary Blackfish; Ric O’Barry, the former trainer of Flipper and subject of the Oscar-winning documentary on dolphin drive hunting, entitled The Cove; the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies; the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; three ex-trainers from SeaWorld in the United States; and Zoocheck Canada.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has publicly opposed captive breeding, and Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati has called for a graduated opportunity for Marineland to reinvent itself.

And because individuals like Phil Demers and Vancouver’s Gary Charbonneau have worked tirelessly to get the word out, 5,775 Canadians have petitioned the House of Commons to pass this bill. An internationalchange.org petition has over 27,000 signatures, and Elizabeth May of the Green Party looks to receive this bill as sponsor in the other place.

I now ask that the Senate make a decision on second reading. In doing so, I only ask that this bill on its merit receive fair and timely consideration, and be put to a free vote.

The question is whether, in 2016, we should keep whales and dolphins in display tanks for the primary purpose of human entertainment.

I submit that, if we continue to allow these intelligent, empathetic creatures to be owned and sold, we place ourselves on the wrong side of history.

Please consider the evidence and search your hearts. I think you’ll find that whales and dolphins deserve to live free lives, among their kind, in the open sea.

Your Honour, if you would, the question.