Anti-captivity animal rights activist David Isbister was nearly in tears Thursday night after the park board made a unanimous decision to limit the importation and display of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium.
“I am stunned. I am stunned and still processing,” he said as he stood in front of television cameras. He had stopped to talk with numerous reporters and shake hands with other opponents, as well as politicians in the gallery, and at the board room table.
“I always knew that our pool of caring people, advocates and activists all throughout Vancouver, were able to get this message out. I just didn’t know if the political will also existed.”
He wasn’t the only one who got emotional during the night’s final discussion.
Green Party commissioner Stuart Mackinnon opened with a statement that lasted nearly 10 minutes and ended with an outburst of sustained applause and cheering from the public gallery, as people also took to their feet as a motion came forward to limit the importation and display of cetaceans.
“Commissioners, the time to act is now. The aquarium has no intention of listening to us or listening to the voters. They have no intention of ending captivity for cetaceans themselves. Therefore, we must do it here and now,” he said. “The fate of these creatures is in our hands.”
A voice pipped up in the crowd, “Thank you, Stuart.”
The park board chairman and Green Party commissioner, Michael Wiebe, called for quiet. NPA commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung, a former chairwoman, was quick on the draw to second the motion and later said she did not have prior notice of Mackinnon’s plan.
There was but one question from the board table as NPA commissioner Casey Crawford asked what was behind the timeline to bring back a staff report for May 15. Since he had started preparing his motion earlier that day, Mackinnon said that staff considered the spring date a reasonable deadline.
There were no amendments to the motion calling for a ban, no disagreement around the table. Rather, one by one, the people representing three separate political parties, as well as an independent, voiced their support and spoke of their own personal connection with the aquarium. Some also showed emotion, the kind of feeling and “sincerity,” to use the word of Kirby-Yung, that spurred many to run for public office in the first place.
Catherine Evans, the lone Vision representative at the table, said changing public sentiment compelled her to support a ban on captive cetaceans and she didn’t need a plebiscite to confirm that.
“It has changed even dramatically in the three to four years and support is plummeting, frankly,” she said, noting there is less tolerance for keeping large, free-ranging animals in what are “unnatural environments for them.”
In one aspect, the ban came about because of the good work of the aquarium itself and its commitment to education and awareness of graceful mammals such as beluga whales and playful displays from rescue dolphins and other animals.
“There is no criticism of the care that the aquarium gives to cetaceans implied in our motion — that is not the issue. It is more fundamental than that. It really is an ethical issue about humane treatment,” said Evans, noting the historical abuse of animals in entertainment, agriculture and science laboratories did not change without being forced to.
As NPA commissioner Casey Crawford would a few minutes later, Evans described a learning experience that opened her mind to the complexities of nature and biodiversity. It happened at the aquarium and featured a wooden, spinning wheel that displayed the salmon lifecycle and a “tiny, tiny, tiny” chance of survival because of natural and man-made obstacles.
Her eyes were glossy and she said, “No live salmon were involved in that learning.”
Wiebe said he wants to see the aquarium feature local wildlife and indigenous culture as well as seafood in an effort to promote environmental conservation.
“I grew up with the aquarium, I had a sticker on the back of my car, I was there for a lot of the births,” he said. “I understand what it does to a child when you learn, but I understand that things have changed and I continue to watch this change. And I am now happy to be a part of it.”
John Coupar, a former board chairman who's with the NPA, began his comments, as he sometimes does, with a reference to his late father, a park board arborist and an advocate for public places who was born 100 years ago.
“We have made some positive changes in the city but we have also made changes that have been negative,” said the two-term commissioner. “We brought smelts back in False Creek. I was, a couple a weeks ago, along those creosote piles that we have now wrapped. […] I have tremendous value for the marine environment and consider myself an environmentalist.”
He said his decision was not a foregone conclusion, far from it. In fact, activists afterwards said they were particularly surprised Coupar voted in favour of a ban.
The commissioner said, “Listening to the speakers tonight, I heard [aquarium CEO] John Nightingale say a couple times in the media that commissioners had made up their minds in advance, and I think that is untrue. I think commissioners listen very carefully and take these decisions to heart — really, really think them through.
“The aquarium has done some tremendous work over the years in terms of, at the time, what was needed for us to understand and change our thinking. I come to the position where I think the time has come for us not to have cetaceans in captivity in Vancouver. It’s just time.”
With stated support from a majority four commissioners and no amendments on the table, the motion was set to pass. The following three board members made the decision unanimous.
More emotional testimony. This is one powerful topic, even sea cucumbers draw tears!! Aquarium not just cetaceans, says Crawford. #vanpoli
— Megan Stewart (@MHStewart) March 10, 2017
Fellow NPA commissioner Casey Crawford paused briefly, with a catch in his breath, as he spoke about his late mother, the head docent at the Vancouver Aquarium, where he spent many days as a child interacting with animals such as iguanas, fish and sea cucumbers. The orca whale of his childhood is gone, and so, too, are the beluga whales that his children came to know.
“Now the tanks are empty and the conversation has become, what are the benefits of returning beluga to the tank and do these benefits outweigh the concerns,” he said. “Frankly, I have not been convinced that valuable and vital research is dependent on the return of beluga to the Vancouver Aquarium.”
Thinking ahead to 2029, he asked what would happen then once the aquarium promised to phase out cetaceans. “But then what? What will the future be for them?”
Crawford said his family gets as much, if not more, out of other exhibits, such as jellyfish and sloths, than of the cetaceans. He was optimistic of what’s to come.
“I had a fascinating experience at the aquarium that was more than just cetaceans,” he said. “It’s a brilliant place and I can’t speak more highly of it, but it is a complete package that is not just cetaceans. […] There is a future for the aquarium in Vancouver and I am proud to have this world-class facility in Stanley Park.”
Independent commissioner Erin Shum asked that staff include broader concerns to help mitigate any legal action brought forward by the aquarium, which had raised millions in fundraising and grants to build a massive expansion project that has not only not yet begun but has already been scaled back for a possible conversion to a time when they would willingly not house cetaceans.
“I am concerned that we do need to address some of the legal and financial implications,” said Shum.
The last to speak was Kirby-Yung, who previously worked in the communications department at the aquarium and considered many there colleagues. She said afterwards the experience was very difficult but she had no doubt the elected board had the authority to take a decision that reflected the public will of voters.
“I would suggest it is entirely appropriate because that is democracy,” she said at the table, referencing a comment from the aquarium CEO John Nightingale that politicians are too influenced by ideology rather than expertise in the field.
“Public policy is based on ideology and it is the job of elected officials to listen to the public,” said Kirby-Yung. “It is the right time to have a conversation around what the future of the Vancouver Aquarium looks like because there are no longer whales there and the expansion […] hasn’t yet begun. If there is going to be change, I think now is the time to talk about it. The plan that was proposed is described by [Nightingale] as a compromise, and I don’t think, on a topic as important as this, that it should be about compromise.
“I have tremendous respect for the people at the aquarium, my former colleagues, and personally this is a very challenging topic for me,” she said. “I have tremendous appreciation for what they have done and I also have every confidence they can turn their significant capability and passion and intellect towards looking at what the aquarium of the future might look like.”
Before the vote was officially counted, Nightingale stood and left the gallery.
He exited out the back door toward the parking lot and did not stop for interviews. However, communications staff were prepared with printed copies of a prepared statement.
In terms of amending park board by-laws, staff will return with a report by May 15, 2017.
As well as legal and financial concerns, the report may also consider the fate of five beluga owned by the aquarium currently on loan at marine parks around North America.