Sunday, May 21, 2017

An Open Letter to Vancouver Park Board Members

Dear Park Board Members,

I know you've gotten a lot of feedback over your recent decision about Vancouver Aquarium. As someone who lives on the opposite end of the continent, who am I to pitch in another voice? Well, I had a very successful career as a marine mammal trainer for the past 12 years, and just recently left to pursue another passion.  However, I am still very connected to the marine mammal community. 

There is something really, really special about that place.  I've only been once, but it is - in my opinion - one of the best aquariums in all aspects: research, animal wellness, habitat design, conservation messaging, insanely advanced and open-minded veterinary care, rescue/rehabilitation...and it doesn't hurt that it's in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  Please believe me when I tell you that Vancouver Aquarium lives its conservation message.

I wanted to better understand who all of you are, because there is no way you'd be on a commission without a pretty impressive background.

You all seem to have huge hearts.  John, you seem like a huge supporter of green and sustainable living.   Casey, you have dedicated your time to helping people in need, like your time volunteering for the Canadian Diabetes Association and promoting an active lifestyle.   Catherine, wow.  A lawyer, an entrepreneur, a warrior for equal rights for all human beings.  Sarah, your work in creating and maintaining green spaces is as impressive as the hotel company you work for, who has a really impressive track record for being environmentally friendly.  Stuart, I love that you not only work with kids with special needs, but that you volunteer your time at (among other places) a hospice.  Michael, your restaurant (wish I could try it...maybe if I ever am lucky enough to live in Vancouver!) sets the bar high for all others in the industry, with an unwavering dedication to sustainable food choices and zero waste.  And Erin, your work in conservation with your eco-friendly spa and special education combined with your academic background in forest genetics is really impressive.

With all that you do to improve not just the city of Vancouver for itself and its residents, but giving so much to human beings who are often over-looked or avoided, I am so surprised at your decision regarding the Vancouver Aquarium.  You decision has effectively signed a death warrant for any cetaceans that need care.  Now they will seek help and receive nothing but an injection of barbiturates, even if they are not critically or terminally ill.
An eight week old Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin who was separated from her mom in Perth, Australia.  She was euthanized after a couple of days because they could not find her mom, and there was nowhere to rehabilitate her long-term.  Here is the news story
Imagine a white-sided dolphin, entangled in fishing gear in such a way that she hasn't been able to eat in weeks.  She is emaciated, she has infections from the wounds resulting from the fishing lines wrapped around her face, dorsal fin, and in her mouth.  She washes ashore, terrified to be away from her family but has no strength to keep up. 

Her care requires more than a quick tune-up and shove back out to sea (seriously, if only it were that easy...).  Her condition is very poor, but not hopeless.  With several weeks or months of rehabilitative care, she can go back out to her family.  She can continue to raise calves...not just her own, but she will add to the survival success of other young dolphins as well.   A few weeks ago, she would have a chance at living her life before becoming hopelessly entangled in gear left by our own species.  The Vancouver Aquarium was the only facility capable of housing rescued cetaceans long-term.  It is not some "let's catch just get more dolphins but say we are rescuing them" scheme.  The Canadian government decides not only if wild dolphins can go back to the wild, and if so, where they go.

An Atlantic white-sided dolphin calf being euthanized in Connecticut.  Story here

What you guys have done is taken away the only beacon of hope for the amazing variety of cetacea that swim your waters.  Is that what you guys want?  With your combined interest and activity in eco-friendly ventures, how do you rationalize killing dolphins?  Stuart, you wrote,

Together, we focussed on one incredible action. We seized the opportunity to do some positive work for Qila and Aurora also in the name of a long, sorrowful stream of other Cetaceans who didn't want to die." 
Do you know what it is like to hold down an animal struggling, terrified, and watch the life drain from his eyes as euthanasia solution is pushed through his veins?  It is a horrible experience when a companion animal is "put down"; any animal lover (I am assuming you guys are in this group) knows the dread of making the decision to have a vet end your loved one's life.  This is usually decided based on criteria establishing quality of life, which has deteriorated due to terminal illness or injury.  It is offering a dignified, peaceful death to an aging or ill non-human family member.

That is not the case with euthanizing cetaceans on the beach solely because there is no place to rehabilitate them. 

If you wanted Chester to have a chance at life, but not live at Vancouver Aquarium...where then would you want the DFO to send him?  Which facility?

Please consider traveling with first responder teams to a 6 month old dolphin, who is terrified and whistling for her mother, her eyes wide and frantic. She seems healthy and could be brought to a long-term care such as Vancouver Aquarium, but that option has been removed.  There are no long-term care facilities she can go to within a reasonable distance.  So, because she cannot immediately be put back to sea, her life must be ended. Please consider having to restrain this baby (the equivalent to a one year old human toddler) as a vet tries to find a blood vessel in order to sedate her and eventually stop her heart.  You guys should have the experience at least once of looking at an animal who can be saved with long-term care, or an animal who is healthy but dependent on mom (who has died), and struggle as the animal fights for her life.  You are the ones pinning her down.  You are the last souls she sees as her life is ended.  Ended by the Vancouver Park Board.

Or, you can give these animals hope and a chance at living their lives.

So many of you have advanced degrees.  So many of you do so much for other humans and the environment as a whole.  But it doesn't seem any of you have experience or knowledge in marine mammal natural history, wild or otherwise.  It doesn't appear as though any of you have volunteering in a marine mammal stranding center (you really should do it, it's totally insane and heartbreaking but rewarding....and they need all the help they can get.  You would make a really big difference).  It appears as though you've chosen to ignore the 13,000 letters sent to you against the ban.  Why?

How can such a group of educated, accomplished, passionate people decide to ignore so many voices with experience and knowledge that they lack?  I just don't understand. 

Many of you pride yourselves on your leadership skills in your LinkedIn profiles (Casey, Catherine).  Your roles as leaders in a park board means you need to consider evidence that is in contrast with your personal opinions.  You don't agree with holding cetaceans in captivity.  Okay.  Now you don't agree with bringing ANY cetaceans to Stanley Park...which means you disagree with rehabilitating cetaceans in British Columbia.  Which means you are okay with killing any stranded dolphin, porpoise, or whale. 

Levi, a harbor porpoise who was rehabbed for several months at Vancouver Aquarium, was successfully released back to his home.  Is his life not worth this?

John, you were quoted saying you'd prefer that distressed cetaceans were just hauled up on a boat, treated, and set free.  Seriously John, if it were that easy, we wouldn't need marine mammal rescue centers.   But that is the problem.  In both Canada and the U.S., the federal governments have a long list of criteria that need to be met in order to deem an animal releasable.  There are a number of illnesses, injuries, and conditions (e.g. Dependent calves) that cannot be treated on a boat, or in a small hospital pool.  The DFO requires that to rehabilitate a cetacean, they need to have habitats that currently, only Vancouver Aquarium has.   It seems surprising to me that someone with your background would make such a naive comment in light of the scientific evidence you have been given by true marine mammal advocates.  

John, I swear I am not picking on you, but what about your heavy involvement with the Bloedel Conservatory? That place looks INCREDIBLE.  And it has lots of free-flighted parrots.  Parrot species which are extremely endangered in their native lands.  Is it okay to keep these extremely intelligent animals - ones who are consistently and illegally exploited for the pet trade - in captivity?  Is it because each animal at the conservatory was born in a zoological-type facility?  Are any of those birds caught from the wild?  Are parrots a large draw to the conservatory?  Do they contribute meaningfully to the revenue brought in?

Stuart, I know that you are firmly planted in the "anti" captivity camp.  I read several of your most recent blogs, including one in which you posted a letter from Steve Huxter.  You're clearly very concerned about the well-being of cetaceans.  You're disgusted by the drive hunts and thoughtless collection (capture) of whales and dolphins from the wild, as am I.  As are most of us who work or have worked with captive marine mammals.  We have some common ground.

But let me tell you something I have learned in my 12 year career: the general public does not care about animals.  Not like you, not like me.  They literally need it slapped in their apathetic (or, occasionally, well-meaning) faces.  Is that my argument for you to suddenly switch positions on this topic of the educational value of cetaceans in human care? No, I'm not trying to insult your intelligence or your passion.  But hear me out:

When I worked at Clearwater Marine Aquarium -a rescue and rehabilitation facility in Florida - I worked with this amazing dolphin named Panama (here is a blog all about her, if you're interested). Long story short, she was an older dolphin found near death as a direct result of humans feeding her from their boats and piers.  She received completely inappropriate food and very poor quality fish and fell very, very ill.  The older calf she had did not hunt; he/she had learned to beg for food and that was it. 

Panama was rescued, rehabilitated, and deemed unreleasable by the U.S. government.  She was placed at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  At some point during her illness or stranding, she completely lost her hearing. 

Panama in 2010

Let me tell you something, Stuart.  After I gave my public presentation on the dolphins, it wasn't unheard of for people to come up to me and actually APOLOGIZE for the times they fed wild dolphins.  It was like this bizarre confessional situation, where I was basically answering the standard "how long do they live" and "how smart are they" questions and boom, someone would approach me with a terrified and/or sheepish look on their face and say, "....I fed dolphins from my boat. I had no idea it could do something like this."

Your concern regarding the "cycle" of lonely cetaceans at Vancouver Aquarium shows that you're concerned about their mental well-being from a social standpoint.  Trust me when I say that any caretaker worthy of their position and responsibility shares your concern.  I'm offering a different perspective on what Chester and Daisy, and others like them provide.  They give a rare and powerful wake-up call to people who would otherwise literally not think twice about doing something really harmful to a dolphin or porpoise...or generally, the ocean itself.

I lived in the mecca of illegal wild dolphin interaction when I worked in the Florida panhandle.  I saw dolphins begging for fish from boats, and even worse, I saw essentially flotillas of jetskiers chase down dolphins on shallow sandbars....including a mother with a very young calf.  The jetskiers were totally happy just to be near dolphins, but had no idea what damage they were causing (or could've caused).  When I approached them, they blew me off, saying if the dolphins wanted to swim away, they could.  I reported them to NOAA, and nothing ever happened.  The same thing kept happening with different groups of people.  I wonder, if they'd seen a calf who was orphaned because his mother was killed by a boat strike, if they would reconsider their actions in a similar situation.

One of the shots I took (from an idled boat) to try to report these people.  The mom and calf are just under the surface

The calf....very, very young.  Probably around a month or two.  Too young to be able to out-maneuver watercraft, which means mom won't leave his side.  They both had to avoid as best as possible these obnoxious people. 

So many of the reasons why marine mammals strand nowadays is because of human-related activity.  Don't you think it's worth exploring an alternative concept of a "conservation-themed" exhibit? Where people can see animals like Chester and Daisy, understand their unique situations, see how well cared for they are, and understand how animals like them wind up in situations where the Canadian government decides they cannot be released back to the sea? 

Too all of you, please reconsider your decision.  Please talk to the DFO (why haven't you already done this? This is so disappointing and scary). Please consider being involved in actual marine mammal rescue before you make a decision like this.  Remain consistent with the ways you guys have ALL chosen to live your lives: to make the city of Vancouver a better place for all of its residents...especially the ones who need help the most.  Why limit your compassion to humans?

Cat Rust


A huge thanks to Malgosia Kaczmarska for helping me sort through fact and fiction in this messy situation.  A resonating shout-out to Friends of the Vancouver Aquarium for their INCREDIBLY rallying cry and fierce dedication (who else would stand in the pouring rain for four hours just trying to be heard in order to spare the lives of animals we care so much about)?  Vancouver Aquarium yet again sets the bar. 


  1. Excellent work, Cat. All of this just makes me so sad.

  2. You've done it again Cat. Spoken so eloquently for all of us.

  3. Cat, well done. If you have not already sent this to the email if each Park Board member and as a letter to the editor of the Vancouver Sun, I hope you do. Okay, it's probably too long for a letter to the editor, but maybe an op-ed piece.

  4. Beautifully said, as always Cat. I hope they listen.

  5. So well said and must share this. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into writing this.

  6. So well said and must share this. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into writing this.

  7. Hi Cat, I applaud your impassioned writing. However, I am concerned that you have not been given the whole story. For example, Levi was never brought into Vancouver Aquarium. Rehabilitation of cetaceans is still permitted in Vancouver and along our coast. I wrote a longer response here.

  8. Thank you, Cat!! That was beautifully written! Let's hope they read this and re-consider their decision!

  9. Thank you so much for this letter Cat. We agree completely. Even though I have been a visitor to Vancouver Aquarium since I was 5, it wasn't until a few years ago (through the education we received there) that I really started caring about the animals in our ocean and the state of the ocean itself. My son Lucas and I fell in love with Chester soon after he was introduced to his permanent habitat with Helen. After developing a friendship, doing a school report on Chester and navigating the media (seems a boy befriending a False Killer Whale is a big deal), we became passionate advocates of the Vancouver Aquarium and MMR. What you said is so true. People don't care about what they don't know about. This is even written on the wall of the aquarium. In their efforts to Amaze, Engage & Inspire - we are different people, making different decisions - healthier ones for our environment and sharing such important information about the health of our oceans. Thanks for your great letter. I really hope it hits the heart of the matter - the hearts of the directors of the Parks Board.

  10. Hey, I loved your letter! I posted it to my twitter and tagged the paper up there and got this reply back. Do you know more on what he had mentioned??