Important letter from BC Teacher re: cetaceans in human care

Dear Senators,

My name is Colin Young, and I am a BC certified teacher who works as the head of Curriculum Programs at the Vancouver Aquarium. I am writing today to urge you to endorse the plan recommended by the Aquarium as pertains to the animals in our care, and would encourage you to become more intimately familiar with the work of our organization.

As a science teacher, I firmly believe that science must inform policy as regards environment and the care of living things. I know that the experts who work in our facility are leaders in their fields, and collaborate closely with other leaders from UBC and other respected research institutes. When it comes to animal care, it should be left to those experts to determine what is best for them, as informed by the best data available. To not be in control of these best practices can actually jeopardize our ability to work with other groups, and could threaten our certification with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a membership that has been identified as an asset in previous Park board assessment of our operations in 2014.

It can also be said, without hyperbole, that cetaceans face a huge number of threats worldwide. From bycatch and garbage entanglement alone, over 800 of them are entangled and either harmed or killed by this single threat each day.  This number does not take into consideration the other impacts in their lives, from shipping traffic disrupting movement, heavy amount of interference from Whale Watching industries that can disrupt feeding habits, and of course the rapidly shifting climate and the huge implications that has for the state of marine life. And this is in relation to fewer than 3000 cetaceans in human care worldwide. When it comes to the scope of the number of whales in care versus the numbers of whales under threat in the ocean, whales in facilities have more positive impact on the world of conservation than not, and those impacts are crucial to the success of wild whales.

And make no mistake, the ability for these animals to teach about the health of our oceans cannot be understated. I obviously believe in what I do, but this tangible connection is something I have had the pleasure of witnessing every day I have worked here, and is one of the reasons I moved from work at the Vancouver School Board to full time at the Aquarium. One example of many, this past year I was in the underwater beluga viewing area running a workshop with a group for grade 5 students on arctic biodiversity. We explore climate change, contemporary use of animals by Inuit and other groups (including eating belugas, by the by), and a host of other areas of interest. Entering this program, I had a student with additional needs who was somewhat non-verbal, with a support staff, who was distracted and I was told would be “unable to focus” during our lesson. As soon as we came in sight of Qila and Aurora, the student immediately went to the window, and watched the whales intently for the next 2 hours. I was able to sit with the student and talk quietly about the places other belugas live, interpreted behaviors of the animals for them, and generally had as good a conversation about the arctic as I would have with any other student.

After the program was finished, the teacher approached me again and said that that was the first time she had known this student to give more than 5 minutes of their attention to something during the school year. The whales had made an obvious and lasting connection to this young person in a way other avenues had not. And the sad irony is that the support staff with them was not the usual staff. This student’s usual adult support worker had opted not to come to the Aquarium because of their beliefs about the animals in our care, and by doing so, had missed the greatest learning opportunity that the student had had to date for the school year.

Our animals are a key part of the success of our education programs, and give us the “aha” moments on a daily basis that some teachers wait a school year to achieve once with their students. This is why I, and many professional educators, choose to work at the Vancouver Aquarium. We will continue to work here because of this passion and certain knowledge that these creatures are connecting to our students in deeply meaningful ways.

We devote our lives as professionals, for lower pay than we could have in the public education system, to working with animals to connect students to the habitats that they represent. If for no other reason than effective education, we take amazing care of these animals. When you consider we devote our waking lives to them and love them on top of this, and you can trust that we will always do what is in the best interest of the animals before all other considerations.

Thank you for your attention. I would strongly encourage you all to please follow the recommended course of action of the Aquarium in regards to our beluga whale program, as well as the health of all animals and cetaceans in our care. I look forward to talking with you more frequently in future about the work we do, and invite any of you to observe our education programs whenever you find you have time to do so.

Best Regards,

Colin Young