Vancouver Board Makes Irresponsible Decision for Whales and Dolphins

Two days ago, on March 9th, the Vancouver Aquarium’s role in conservation, rescue and rehabilitation, and research was forever altered after the Vancouver City Park’s board voted to prohibit the housing of cetacean species, which includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums called the decision “troubling”. And, in a politically correct world they’re right. But, let’s not be politically correct for a second. Let’s be blunt. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call this ultimatum what it really is: irresponsible.

The Vancouver Aquarium has been a major contributor to cetacean research and conservation for the last fifty years. Notable projects include data collection of killer whale vocalizations, the metabolic rates of pacific white-sided dolphins, communication patterns between beluga mothers and offspring, echolocation abilities of multiple species, and the rescue and rehabilitation of several whales, dolphins, and porpoises, three of which still call the Vancouver Aquarium home.

Currently, the Aquarium houses only three cetaceans, Helen (Pacific white-sided dolphin), Chester (false killer whale), and Daisy (harbor porpoise). ALL of which were RESCUED.

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Helen (foreground) and Chester interacting with members of their care team. (Image from vanaqua.org)

So, let’s walk through this step by step with Daisy as an example. Stranded for unknown reasons in 2008, Daisy was rescued as a one-month old calf suffering from severe dehydration, emaciation, and muscle loss. At first, she was so weak and malnourished, she did not have the ability to hold herself up in the water, let alone swim. After nearly a year of rehabilitation, during which time the Vancouver Aquarium’s animal care staff members gave her the best possible support through their knowledge and expertise, Daisy beat epically long odds and thrived. Deemed non-releasable due to the fact that she never learned to hunt and survive in the wild, the Vancouver Aquarium became her permanent home in 2009.

In the years that she’s lived at the Vancouver Aquarium since, Daisy’s story has touched hundreds of thousands of people. She’s helped educate the public about her species through presentations called “Porpoise Talks”, connected and interacted with guests as she displays her curious side, and participated in research studies that have helped reveal details about porpoises that are assisting researchers and conservationists in saving multiple cetacean species today.

Her journey also mattered when Levi, an adult male harbor porpoise stranded several years later in March of 2013. In the same way Daisy was not able to support herself in the water, neither was Levi, and in similar fashion to the previous situation, the experts at the Aquarium fashioned a custom-made raft and cared for him during his several months of rehabilitation. As he improved, Levi became a candidate for return to the wild. And, in September of 2013, six months after he was found stranded on the shore of Saanich Inlet, Levi was swimming in the ocean again.

But with the foolish decision made just two days ago, successful stories like Levi’s and Daisy’s, stories of survival and scientific progress, will become few and far between, if not completely nonexistent.

What happens next time? When an animal flounders, in need of help, who will be there to assist? Where will that animal go? Without the Vancouver Aquarium, which is one of Canada’s only teams with the expertise and availability  to save stranded cetaceans, the next time a porpoise, dolphin, or whale strands, that injured/ill animal will have to be transported several hours to the next rehabilitation center *IF* there is one available. And let’s hope there is, because the only other option is for the animal to be euthanized by drug or bolt gun.

There are repercussions for the actions set forth by this reckless decision. This vote, made for political reasons alone, in hopes to appease the, admittedly loud, but small, unqualified minority, is a setback in the scientific study of cetaceans and also jeopardizes the lives of future animals in distress.

Yet, while I am angry and distressed by those consequences, as all cetacean-lovers should be, I am not surprised that the board caved to aforementioned uninformed protestors.

We live in a blind society that values unscientific, short-sighted philosophies more than the wellbeing of individual animals and entire species.

We live in a society where documentary filmmakers attempt to damage and dismantle reputable zoological facilities with lies and twisted information without considering what that means for future distressed and stranded animals.

A society where the same soccer mom who condemns and vows to boycott world-renowned aquariums on Twitter also hypocritically demands “rescue the dolphin!”, not understanding how the same professional entities they choose to attack are needed in order to give that animal a future of any kind.

A society where PETA finds the money to brandish billboards with crass images and grossly tactless misinformation to slander the zoological community’s hard-working, well-educated animal care specialists who have dedicated their lives to reviving individual animals and researching whole species, and yet donates NOT A SINGLE DIME to cetacean rescue, research, or conservation.

Meanwhile, accredited organizations like the Vancouver Aquarium, are actively participating in research and conservation that directly benefits killer whales, belugas, harbor porpoises, and the most endangered marine mammal in the world: the vaquita.

In fact, some of the acoustic research conducted by researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium with the help of Daisy, is currently being used to help locate the remaining thirty individuals of the elusive vaquita species in hopes of bolstering the population and bringing them back from the very edge of extinction.

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Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue team at work. (Image from vanaqua.org)

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are intriguing, charismatic animals, and as such, have garnered adoration and attention from many. Shutting down reputable zoos and aquariums, organizations that help research, conserve, and rescue animals is not helpful.

It’s harmful.

However, it is admirable to want to make a difference. Zoos and aquariums encourage and need your help, because when animals and species are in need, very rarely do the loudmouthed armchair-activists actually show up.

So, help.

Save the dolphins. Recycle discarded fishing line. Choose reusable bags instead of plastic when you go to the grocery store. Volunteer as part of a marine mammal rescue team.

Save the porpoises. Donate to VaquitaCPR. Refuse to participate in balloon releases. Organize a beach cleanup.

Save the whales. Eat sustainable seafood when you’re ordering fish at a restaurant. Visit a responsible zoo or aquarium involved in rescue, research, and conservation programs. And then, teach others how to care for them too.

We all have the power to make a difference for these animals, but it should be the right kind of difference. It should be one based on science. It should be one based on correct, factual information. It should be a responsible one full of action that benefits them now and in the future.

So, for the love of cetaceans, choose to make the right difference and pass it on.

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Daisy. (Image from vanaqua.org)

[Correction: This post originally identified the Vancouver Aquarium’s board as the entity that voted on the prohibition of cetaceans. This is incorrect as the decision was, in fact, made by the Vancouver City Park board which controls the property currently leased by the accredited aquarium and this post has been changed to reflect that fact.]

 

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Makes History with Hatching of Indian Gharial

The Indian gharial is among one of the largest crocodilian species, with males able to reach lengths of just under twenty feet and weigh nearly four hundred pounds. Upon hatching, however, the reptile measures around twelve to fifteen inches long and weighs just one quarter of a pound. Indian gharials generally begin to display courtship behaviors in December, mate in January and February, and lay their eggs in March and April. In captive environments, these animals have proven difficult to breed in the past, the only successes coming from programs in the animals’ native homeland of India and Nepal.

That changed on June 12, 2016 with the hatching of an Indian gharial at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Zoos Are Important is thrilled that director and general manager of the zoo, John Brueggen, agreed to this written interview to give us more insight into this milestone for the species.

 

Zoos Are Important: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your time and answer some questions about your conservation success!

Let’s get to know you first. What is your personal history with the zoological field and, specifically, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm?

John Brueggen: I told my parents I was going to be a zoo keeper at age 5.  I have worked at Lowry Park Zoo, Bush Gardens, Walt Disney World, and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.  I came to the Alligator Farm over 16 years ago as the General Curator, and was promoted to Director about 10 years ago.

 

ZAI: What is the St Augustine Alligator Farm’s history with the Indian gharial species?

JB: In 1993, our zoo became the only zoo in the world to house every species of crocodilian in the world.  We opened an attraction called “Land of Crocodiles”, and the gharials display was one of the new exhibits.  Since that time we have been growing up our one male and two females in an attempt to reproduce them.  We worked with Purina’s zoo diet team to create a special diet for the gharial, whom normally only consume fish in the wild. In 2011, one of our female gharial laid eggs but she just dropped them in the water.  We didn’t even know she was pregnant and she was letting us know that there was not a suitable place to lay her eggs.   In 2012 we built a large sand bank in the exhibit, similar to the sandbanks in India where female gharial are known to lay their eggs.  In 2012 and 2014 one of our female gharial laid eggs in the sandbank, but only a few of the eggs were fertile and though one egg grew to a full term hatchling it did not survive to hatch out of the egg. In 2013 we traveled to India to meet with a the [sic] team at the Madras Crocodile Bank, as they have experience breeding gharial in India. We picked their brains about water temperatures, diet, and incubation techniques. When we returned home we invested more energy in heating water during the winter and making sure our sand mound was at the right height and angle.  Then this year, on April 7 we collected some fertile eggs from the nesting sandbank.  We carefully transferred them to our incubators because the sandbank was not warm enough for embryo development.  Finally, on June 12, 2016 a beautiful little snout poked its way out of one of the eggs.

 

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Indian gharial hatching at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. (Photo from St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Facebook page)

 

ZAI: Can you explain what a Species Survival Plan (SSP) is and how it helps with species conservation?

JB: The Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a program in which zoos can work together to help save a species.  No one zoo can do all the conservation work for a singe [sic] species.  By working together, we create a large breeding population of animals across North America.  For example, our zoo is not capable of housing and breeding all the Chinese Alligators that are in captivity, but by working with all the zoos that have Chinese Alligators, we can work together to have a large breeding group.  There is a computerized studbook that makes recommendations each year as to which individual should breed with which other to maintain the best genetic diversity for the next 100 years.  That may mean that a female from our facility has to be moved to breed with a male in Toledo, but by making these adjustments and pairings each year we create a genetically diverse population.  We have been so successful at this that we have even been able to take some of our Chinese Alligator offspring and release them into protected habitat in China.

 

ZAI: Can you explain the process your team has gone through in the recent weeks from the female Indian gharial laying the eggs to the first hatch?

JB: A few years ago we received a very generous donation of some very precise incubators.  When we found the eggs in our nesting beach, we very carefully transferred the eggs to these new incubators.  Crocodilian eggs have to be kept at the perfect temperature and humidity, and these incubators did it perfectly!  Just about 60 days later, out popped a baby gharial.

 

ZAI: Why is this hatchling in particular so important and what does this successful breeding mean for the species going forward?

JB: We are hoping that this is just the first of may [sic] breedings over the next ten years.  We are the first zoo in the western hemisphere to crack the code, but we hope that our zoo partners in other AZA zoos with adult gharial will soon follow suit.  Our little guy will need a girl to breed with in the future!  This breeding is just the first step in an ongoing conservation puzzle.  If we are able to breed enough gharial in the future to release them back into the wild, there needs to be a suitable place in the wild to release them.  Captive breeding is only a small piece of the overall conservation of this species.  What this little hatchling represents is hope.  More people now know about an animal called a gharial because of this one little hatchling.  Before reading this story, many people had never even heard of this animal.

 

ZAI: Being that the Indian gharial is critically endangered, is there hope of reintroducing some of these captive-bred individuals into their native habitat?

JB: These animals currently have some head start programs in their native countries.  Just like we do with sea turtles, there are groups that hatch gharial, raise them until they are a size that they might survive, and then release them into the wild.  The real issues have to do with whether or not there will continue to be enough pristine habitat left for them to survive.  Sand is a valuable commodity in India and people are literally stealing the gharials’ nesting sandbanks.

 

ZAI: Do guests have the ability to view your new addition?

JB: We will evaluate the hatchling over the next few weeks to determine how it is doing, make sure it is eating, etc.  Then we can make a decision about displaying him.

 

ZAI: What can we, as the general public, do to help the Indian gharial going forward?

Support your local zoo and all the great work they do!

There is a lot of information about gharial at: http://www.gharialconservationalliance.org/

Financial contributions can be made at: http://www.gharialconservationalliance.org/?page_id=22

 

ZAI: Thank you again for your time! Please extend our congratulations to your team!

JB: Thank you!

 

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Congratulations to the whole St. Augustine Alligator Farm team! (Photo from St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Facebook page)

 

Learning Links:

St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Research Blog

St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s participation in Species Survival Plans

Indian Gharial feeding time at Lowry Park Zoo

Indian Gharial training techniques at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo