Should We Import Belugas for Display?

If you’re an animal lover, you’ve probably heard by now about the 18 beluga whales that a group of U.S. marine park and aquarium owners wants to import from Russia.  The 18 whales were captured in the wild off the Siberian coast specifically to be put on display—that is, for our entertainment. And that’s where the issue gets sticky. Because we now know from numerous animal behavior studies—in laboratories and in natural habitats–that all mammals are thinking and feeling beings.

Rats laugh; dolphins, elephant, chimpanzees grieve their dead; laboratory rats also dream about their maze-challenge tasks; horses and elephants and likely many other animals know each other as individuals and recognize one another’s voices. Stories about new discoveries of animals’ cognitive and emotional abilities appear almost weekly.  So it is troubling when we hear about parks and aquariums doing something that seems at odds with what we imagine their charter to be—in this case, helping to protect and care for these highly social and intelligent creatures of the sea.  It is noteworthy, too, that no marine mammal has been captured like this—to be put on exhibit in a U.S. facility—since 1993. Many animal activist groups are outraged at the consortium, and have encouraged their members to protest.

Before rushing to judgment, though, it’s worth reflecting on the statements issued by spokespersons from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment—both of which are part of the group hoping to import the belugas and both of which would be receiving some. They argue that the whales are needed to help with their captive breeding programs, research, and education. Although none of the whales is destined for the Vancouver Aquarium, it spoke up on behalf of the other aquariums, saying that “Seeing whales in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for seeing animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and connection…Education is vital to the survival of whales in the wild.”

I can’t quibble with that final sentence. But is it necessary to see a beluga up-close and in person to be educated about or to value them?  Does one need to don a wet suit and be nuzzled by a beluga—as you can do at the Georgia Aquarium and three others (for a price)—to feel connected to them.

Virginia Morell is a correspondent for Science, and an author of four books, including the soon-to-be-released ANIMAL WISE: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (Crown, February 2013).

Not only have I never petted a beluga, I’ve never laid eyes on one in captivity or in the wild. My only encounters with them have been of the virtual kind—photographs in magazines or online, and in film documentaries.  Those glimpses alone have sufficed to educate me, and to make me support the various conservation efforts underway to assure that healthy populations of belugas endure in the wild.

I’m sure I’m not alone. In fact, a study carried out by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the Humane Society shows that people would still attend aquariums if orcas weren’t on display; that they feel just as positive toward these animals after watching them in films. Perhaps, most important, they are uncomfortable with the idea of capturing more killer whales for exhibit.

So it really isn’t a surprise that there has been such an outcry against importing these captive belugas—even though people do love watching them in marine parks.  After all, belugas are extraordinary animals–striking in their coloration, and mesmerizing in their behaviors.  I can understand how their pearly white skin, tubby bodies, and bemused expressions make them among the most popular of marine mammals at aquariums.  They’re kind of like giant sea-going Caspar-the Friendly-Ghosts; it’s easy to imagine squeezing into a wet suit to hug one.  And because belugas are curious about people—swimming right up to an aquarium’s window to look at you—it’s easy to imagine them hugging you right back, or at least rubbing against you like a pet. I can also imagine, though, that most belugas, and especially those who’ve lived free, would prefer not to do any of these things.

We don’t know a great deal about belugas in the wild, largely because they live in the Arctic ice for much of the year. Researchers haven’t carried out the kind of long-term studies that they’ve done on bottle-nose dolphins or orcas.  We do know that they are highly social, gregarious creatures; they make long migrations; they have an impressive range of calls, and like dolphins (to which they are distantly related) use these in a variety of ways, including imitating one another. (A just-released study shows that captive belugas can also imitate humans.)  They like to hang out in the summer in shallow coastal waters in large groups (sometimes numbering in the thousands), which are most likely made up of close relatives—mothers, dads, and kids, aunts and uncles, and cousins.  Sometimes, they make solo journeys just to visit other groups—a behavior that reminds me of elephants, who sometimes leave their families to visit clan members far away.

Worldwide there are about 150,000 belugas living in the Arctic waters of North America, Russia, and Greenland. The  international agency that tracks endangered species lists them as being “near threatened” – an animal we need to monitor as the Arctic’s sea ice melts, but not an animal needing to be rushed into captivity for special care and breeding.  So the aquariums’ other purpose—to enhance the genetic diversity of those they already hold in captivity—makes me uneasy.

I am not persuaded that there is a need for such a population. Those in captivity now will grow old, perhaps lonely, and die. But to replace them will cause other belugas harm and grief—because it can only be done by tearing apart families that are doing fine now in the wild.

The parks and aquariums hoping to import the 18 belugas seem to have broken our trust—our understanding of their purpose—and this is why, I suspect, that people are so outraged.  It’s up to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service to decide if the whales can be imported.  The Service normally accepts public comment on import applications for 30 days. But there has been such an outcry in this case, the agency has extended the period for 60 days—until October 29.

Changing Planet

I'm a correspondent for SCIENCE, and an author of four books, including the soon-to-be-released ANIMAL WISE: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (Crown, February 2013).