Many animal protection groups cheered the recent passage of Ontario's new legislation, Bill 80, which finally governs the keeping of marine mammals in captivity.
Please understand that, as it stands, it does not protect a single animal; not one. What it will do remains to be seen. But, so far, it has earned kudos for a government that may not deserve them. We'll see.
The bill does outlaw the captive breeding, owning, or import of orcas, also known as "killer whales." There is only one captive orca in Ontario, Kiska, who dwells at Marineland in Niagara Falls: Ontario's only facility to hold any cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). She is "grandfathered," meaning Marineland gets to keep her. So, for her, there is no victory - and, unless Marineland sells or trades her somewhere, she is doomed to die alone at Marineland.
The only other cetaceans held captive in Ontario - also at Marineland - are belugas, also known as "white whales," and bottlenose dolphins. They, along with Pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses), are not protected by the bill itself.
But, wait; Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi also included in his bill requirements for institutions to have a qualified veterinarian and an "animal welfare committee," although what they do won't be made public.
He has also formed a "technical advisory committee" to advise his ministry on regulations to assure humane care of all species of captive marine mammals in the province. There is only one facility keeping such animals, apart from the few zoos that might have a few Pinnipeds from time to time.
And, that creates a dilemma for animal protectionists. The alternative to legislation is a return to no legislation, which is of no value to anyone other than the captive marine mammal industry. An exposé by The Toronto Star, which got considerable coverage compared to much earlier warnings by Zoocheck in several independent reports, described numerous issues of concern to humanitarians and distressed Marineland staff, some now being sued by Marineland (for ridiculously high sums) for daring to go public with their concerns.
Some of us have been working for decades for at least a modicum of zoo regulation in Ontario, so we are hardly in a position to oppose Bill 80, which, at any rate, is now a done deal.
The bill does not address whether these animals should be or can be kept humanely at all, but rather, how to keep them.
The problem is that you cannot keep them humanely within the needs of what is, fundamentally, an entertainment facility functioning to make profits. The sheer space and diversity these animals experience naturally and require for a full, balanced life cannot be replicated in concrete tanks. Sea pens and closed-off coastal bays and inlets can at least provide a small degree of what the animals experience in the wild, but that's not feasible in Ontario, nor is it economically viable for amusement parks such as Marineland.
While the Minister claims meetings of the committees have begun, animal welfare groups - supposedly "stakeholders" in the process - have yet to be involved. What has been presented to date is reportedly based on inadequate standards elsewhere. They are essentially "one-size-fits-all" linear measurements for the tanks in which the animals are kept.
We are suggesting that if these unfortunate animals are to continue to be imprisoned, they should be given a vastly higher volume of water in which to survive. Depth can and should be variable, but volume should not just equal, but surpass the best the zoo and aquarium world has to offer: to set a standard higher than any other, thereby establishing leadership. Marineland has the space; the animals deserve at least that much consideration.
Will Ontario even consider such leadership? These committees supposedly consist of "stakeholders," but the most important stakeholders - the marine mammals themselves - will not be at the table. Those representing their interests will be a minority. I am not hopeful, but ultimately, the choice will belong to the government. The devil will be in details yet to emerge.