Appeared in Business in Vancouver – May 6, 2014
Let us get the business out of the way. Last year the Vancouver Aquarium attracted over a million visitors. Its total revenue was $30.6 million, of which $12.9 million was from admissions. Its fame is worldwide. It has thrived under co-founder Murray Newman and, since Newman’s retirement, John Nightingale. Now move on.
A fatuous crusade has bubbled up, media-driven and bursting with easy brownie points, by a branch of the politically correct, demanding a referendum in November’s municipal elections on the future of the aquarium’s whales and dolphins.
Some park commissioners are eager to restart the board’s ancient animosity toward the privately operated aquarium that dares to thrive in Stanley Park, and is its greatest draw and financial generator.
Mayor Gregor Robertson’s ruminations about phasing out the “captivity” of these cetaceans have encouraged the protesters.
Newman notes that this is the 50th anniversary of the unprecedented live capture of killer whale Moby Doll, which drew international study and fascination.
Newman draws a parallel: “Vancouver had a terrible loss of its beautiful little zoo … wrecked by irresponsible people who said they were lovers of animals.”
Starting with an animal story inspired by Thornton W. Burgess – Grade 2, thank you, Miss Ella Hunt – that begat every word I’ve written since, I’ve been intimate with the environment since she was called Mother Nature.
I believe she is ideologically neutral, but she attracts some who are gently unreal, a sprinkling of fanatics, and many fashionable camp followers – and cynical politicians. Green Coun. Adriane Carr may have a touch of each.
Better get this out there: I’m a bit of a flake on the subject myself.
More radical than most mainstream environmentalists, or those who seek “sustainable harvests” – of bears, birds, whatever.
Whereas I’m a minimalist, and a feeler of pain. No animal death is small. Though the theology has mostly lost my interest, I’ve never outgrown the God of the children’s hymn who sees each sparrow fall.
After the above, this may seem a paradox: the Vancouver Aquarium should keep, and replace when feasible, its cetaceans.
I believe they “know” they are special, in a mystical sense that human intelligence can surmise but not scientifically define. This awareness reconciles them to living in a confined space – in the best habitat possible, and with expert and passionate care – and even to recognize that in a sense they are sacrificial. And calmly accept it.
You may call this mad – “Easy boys, this guy doesn’t look dangerous, but you never know.” Surprise: secular god Charles Darwin detected in the earthworm “the presence of a mind of some kind … mental qualities.”
His student George John Romanes observed behavioural manifestations of “mind” in jellyfish, starfish and sea urchins.
Both saw signs of “consciousness” even in protozoa. Oliver Sacks cited their research in an April New York Review of Books article.
Where to start, where to stop our troubled anthropomorphism?
Whales and such, far from sullenly retreating to the depths, seem to like people and enjoy playing with them, jumping from the water in graceful arcs to delicately take fish from human hands, swimming convivially with them.
It’s a subsidiary of show business as well as educational, and so what?
These performances have been a great draw, especially for children.
For poolside viewers, getting a soaker when the enormous animals descended into water brought thrilled screams from the kids and made their parents children again.
Ignore the humourless, the funless, the misplaced sympathy. Ignore the mayor. Ignore Adriane Carr. Ignore the sad-eyed do-gooders. The “prisoners” are content.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014