Canada’s New “Free Willy” Law

O​ne of the most memorable vacations that I can recall was a trip to British Columbia. During our stay there, like most visitors, we paid a visit to Stanley Park and the Vancouver Aquarium. The Vancouver Aquarium was Canada’s first public aquarium. It has a worldwide reputation for excellence.

The main attraction was the stadium show featuring performing marine mammals. The star of the show was a performing Orca, or Killer Whale, named Bjossa. Bjossa was well-trained and everyone loved the stunts she performed. She thrilled the kids in the crowd most of all.

Later, we saw the place where this killer whale lived when not performing. She sat motionless in a cramped underwater pen in which she could barely turn around. It spoiled what had been a fascinating day. That pen was certainly no substitute for the Pacific Ocean!

To be fair, the Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps Orcas or any other kind of whale in captivity at their facility. They do own four Beluga whales, but they are on breeding loan to facilities in the United States. As for other marine mammals, today the aquarium houses a single Pacific white-sided dolphin.

The other Canadian public park that is famous for its whale shows is Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario. In their case, they do still keep a killer whale named Kiska and fifty-three Beluga whales in captivity along with a large pod of dolphins. Animal rights activists have been protesting this theme park for decades.

Something started to change in 2015. Senator Wilfred P. Moore from Nova Scotia took the initiative to introduce Bill S-203, the “Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dophins Act”. The bill has gone through a long, drawn out process. After four endless years, it received third reading in the Canadian Senate. It had sat in committee for almost two years.

That was only stage one. The bill still had to pass the House Commons. It came as no surprise to me that the bill was sponsored in the House by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. This made the bill unusual in two ways. First of all, most bills originate in the House of Commons and are then signed off by the Senate. This bill came about the opposite way around. This is as valid constitutionally as the other way but parliamentarians think of it as backwards.

The other odd thing about the bill is that it’s what is called a private member’s bill. Almost all bills in Canada’s parliament are sponsored by a cabinet minister. If not, they are at least sponsored by a member of the governing party. This bill didn’t follow either path.

Its sponsor was one of the two Green Party members in the House of Commons. Technically, the Greens don’t have enough seats to be recognized as an official party. Most of the time, private members bills introduced by opposition MP’s go nowhere. Traditionally, they are a symbolic gesture rather than a serious legislative effort.

Bill S-203 came to bat with two strikes against it. Even so, after its four year sojourn in the Senate, it sailed through the House in six months. As I write this, it became law two days ago. The new law will make it illegal to keep cetaceans (marine mammals) in captivity in Canada.

The practice will be phased out, except for cases of rehabilitation or rescue. Also, captive cetaceans will not be tossed back in the sea and left to fend for themselves. Those animals who are not candidates for release will be cared for in captivity for the rest of their lives. The law bans the capture or importation of any new whales, porpoises or dolphins.

This is not virtue signaling or tree hugging. The idea isn’t a sentimental knee-jerk reaction from watching the movie Free Willy once too often. It’s evidence based policy. Twenty marine mammal biologists backed the law. They were from all over the world. They wrote, “at a minimum, the maintenance of odontocetes in commercial captive display facilities for entertainment purposes is no longer supported or justified by the growing body of science on their biological needs.”

Cetaceans in the wild travel up to 100 miles per day. They are social animals with complex relationships and hierarchies. There can be hundreds of individuals in a pod. They are also highly intelligent creatures. Whales, dolphins and porpoises suffer both physically and mentally in captivity. We have one word to describe this practice. That word is “cruel”.

Something interesting happened in Ottawa this week. It may show a change in political attitudes. A bill that started in the mind of one Senator overcame all obstacles and made it to the House of Commons. As a private members’ bill, it navigated through the Commons without opposition. The MP’s who took part in the discussion in the House kept repeating that this was a moral, not a political issue. Improbable as it seems, this oddball bill is now law.

Could this signal a renewed respect for nature and the earth? That may be too much to hope for but it’s what Dare to Know is all about. We want to see laws based on facts and evidence. We look for decisions to be made on ethical grounds rather than on what is merely expedient. We hope to see more laws like this one in the future.

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