Battle over Belugas

The death of two beluga whales in Chicago has intensified the debate about their captivity
November 16, 1992

Two adolescent female beluga whales swim lazily about their state-of-the-art pool in Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium. The belugas are about nine feet long and look like marshmallow dolphins, white and pudgy, their mouths upturned in benign grins. Belugas can turn their heads—few cetaceans possess such a physiological quirk—giving them a friendly and inquisitive air. The aquarium's crowds, which have been at record levels since the whales first went on display in April 1991, delight in watching the gentle creatures surface, peer at the people peering at them, then quietly dive beneath the water.

This scene is deceptively tranquil. Recently the Shedd, a not-for-profit aquarium that first opened more than 60 years ago, has been the site of numerous protests. And as they have been doing for the past three years, animal-welfare groups throughout the world continue to file legal suits to prevent belugas from being taken into captivity. Lately the battle has escalated. In September two of the Shedd's six belugas died, prompting the governments of Canada and the U.S. to join in an investigation into what killed the seemingly healthy captive whales.

The two belugas were part of a group of four that were captured in Canada by the Shedd in August. The two males and two females were being acclimated to their new surroundings and had yet to join the two females that had been on display since 1991. But after three weeks in the aquarium's care, two of the four new whales—a male and a female—died 20 minutes after receiving routine injections to treat lung parasites. A necropsy found the cause of death to be heart failure, though why the animals' hearts stopped remains a mystery. Also troubling were the credentials of the veterinarian who administered the injections; he was not licensed to practice in Illinois, though he was licensed in California.

Animal-welfare groups contend that it is unethical to take whales from their social groups in the sea and place them in aquariums for entertainment and profit. These animals aren't endangered and survive perfectly well in the wild on their own. "What kind of message is that?" says Joy Pote-Stanford, coordinator of the Midwest chapter of the Miami-based Dolphin Project, an organization dedicated to the protection and understanding of the dolphin and other whales. "That the world and all its beings are for humans to exploit as they see fit?"

"We're all environmentalists here," says Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's assistant curator of marine mammals. "We're just on opposite sides of the philosophical fence." Shedd officials argue that only by seeing the whales up close can urban dwellers appreciate, and thereby feel compelled to protect, these magnificent creatures.

Last year in the U.S., more than 32 million visitors went to see marine mammals in zoos, aquariums, oceanariums and marine life parks, such as the Sea Worlds. Some 30 U.S. cities are considering new aquariums, and most of these facilities hope to house belugas.

"People tend to look at whales in human terms," says Jon Lien, professor of animal behavior at Memorial University, in St. John's, Newfoundland. Me has been studying the relation between whales and humans for the past 15 years. "Because whales communicate and exhibit complex social behavior, people assume that they are more like us than other animals."

Partly as a result of these perceptions, efforts to ban the capture of whales and other marine mammals are gaining momentum. For the past 12 years the state of Washington has enforced a moratorium on the capture of killer whales, or orcas, off its shores. There is a similar moratorium on the capture of bottle-nosed dolphins along the Gulf Coast of Florida, and recently South Carolina passed legislation banning the display of captive marine mammals within its borders.

Research done by the U.S. Humane Society shows that more than half of the marine mammals taken into captivity die prematurely. "It is apparent to us that these animals suffer," says Paula Jewell, the society's program coordinator for wildlife and habitat protection. "There are a lot of problems—injuries, illnesses, death, behavioral changes."

For instance, three years ago an audience at San Diego's Sea World watched in horror as one killer whale rammed another and broke its jaw. The injured whale bled to death. Six months later an audience in Victoria, B.C., watched a show in which three orcas performed. Afterward their trainer fed them. As she left the pool area, she slipped and fell into the water, and the whales tossed her in the air as they would a seal and dragged her under the water until she drowned.

The Shedd Aquarium's $43 million addition, built to house the belugas, is billed as the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world. Its three interconnecting pools make up an area 47 times the size required by federal law. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Lake Michigan, creating the illusion that the whales' pool flows into the lake's waters beyond the windows. Natural light floods the area. A Pacific Northwest rain forest has been re-created with nature trails, running streams and volcanic rock formations—all of which surround the pools.

But back in the spring of '89, it looked as though the Shedd might not get any whales for its grand digs. Animal-welfare activists had been successful in obtaining a restraining order that prevented the Shedd from acquiring false killer whales (which resemble killer whales but are smaller and all-black) from Japan. And at first, efforts to get belugas for the aquarium were similarly hampered. In the summer of 1989, when the Shedd officials planned to travel to Canada to collect whales, the aquarium's addition was still 15 months from completion. The Canadian agency that oversees the exportation of marine mammals declared a Miami holding site for the Shedd whales to be unsuitable. But then Illinois's governor at the time, James Thompson, stepped in to help. Thompson, who realized the value of the whales in terms of prestige for the state's largest city, got in touch with Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney. Thompson, who was the head of a governors' task force on global environment, reportedly intimated to Mulroney that since Illinois supports legislation to protect Canada's forests and waterways from acid rain, Canada might want to reciprocate by helping Chicago acquire its whales.

Canadian help was crucial because though there are beluga populations from Greenland to the Gulf of Alaska, only those living in Canada's Hudson Bay are suitable for capture. Thousands of them roam the Arctic. But conditions there are harsh, and the animals, capable of diving deeper than 1,000 feet, have miles of ocean in which to elude would-be captors. Another, more accessible population lives in the St. Lawrence River. But that waterway is so contaminated with PCBs and other pollutants that many of the beluga carcasses that wash ashore must be disposed of as toxic waste. The third area is Canada's Hudson Bay. Every year the whales migrate a mile up the Churchill River, which empties into the bay, to one particularly shallow section outside the town of Churchill, an ideal spot for capturing the animals.

Canada agreed to grant the Shedd whale permits after an aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., offered to house the whales temporarily. In 1989-90 two nine-foot belugas, which in the wild migrate up to 100 miles a day, spent 18 months swimming in a Tacoma holding tank 30 feet in diameter and seven feet deep.

Not surprisingly, environmental groups tried to block the first capture as well as the one in August. Leone Pippard, an independent researcher, has investigated wild belugas for 10 years. "I've observed a great deal of caring, social affiliations among the whales," she says. "Young males go off and form a bachelor herd where they play with what can only be described as their friends. There are strong female-to-offspring bonds. But also, when some of the females go off to hunt, a 'nanny' will look after the nursery. I've seen up to 10 whales form a huge circle, their heads in the center, and seem to do nothing more than communicate with each other."

Wearing a wet suit, Ken Ramirez addresses the 1,000 people who pack the Shedd's amphitheater five times a day. During these presentations the whales, along with the aquarium's four Pacific white-sided dolphins, are encouraged to behave as they might in the wild. Ramirez tells the crowd that it is imperative not only to protect these animals but also to protect their environment and their food chains.

Later, when asked how people might help, Ramirez says, "Stop ocean dumping, drift nets, pollution and all the other problems, so that suddenly the world is a perfect place. People use the world as if it is ours for the taking. I want more people to care about and protect the oceans that belugas swim in. Seeing these animals is an excellent way to make people care."

He may be right, but white rhinos and elephants have been on display in zoos for decades. All the while their numbers in the wild have dwindled, and they arc now close to the point of extinction.

"Whales are so very special to us," says Memorial University's Lien. "If we can't protect them, how can we hope to protect anything on this planet?"

PHOTOAPNew York City's aquarium is home to Winston (left) and Natasha, who gave birth in '91. PHOTOMICHAEL L. ABRAMSONGreg Dye works with Puiji, one of the Shedd's biddable belugas.

Lisa Twyman Bessone, who lives in Chicago, writes frequently for Sports Illustrated.

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