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Insults and aggression charge fight between Vancouver Aquarium and Park Board

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Vancouver Aquarium is hosting a rally Monday night in a last-ditch attempt to coax the Vancouver Park Board away from enacting a ban on whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The board will hold a final vote on the contentious issue on Monday, but the aquarium is hoping commissioners can see the importance of the institution’s rescue and rehabilitation program.

The Rally for Rescue will take place at Ceperley Playground at Second Beach from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

According to the aquarium, 95 per cent of Vancouverites support marine mammal rescue and over 11,000 letters have been delivered to the Park Board asking it to reconsider its decision, first voted on in early March.

Park Board commissioners voted unanimously to “bring forward for enactment by the Board an amendment to the Parks Control bylaw to prohibit the importation and display of live cetaceans in Vancouver parks” by May 15.

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READ MORE: Vancouver Park Board will ‘leave cetaceans to die a death on the beach’: Aquarium

A list of the draft amendments were released on Wednesday. It states “no person shall bring into any park, or otherwise keep or maintain in any park, any cetacean which has been captured or taken from the wild,” excluding captive cetaceans rescued prior to Sept. 16, 1996, and cetaceans born into captivity at any time.

Other exceptions include:

  • Cetaceans which are already being kept or maintained in a park as of Sept. 16, 1996
  • A member of an endangered cetacean species, provided that approval for bringing it into a park has first been obtained from the Park Board
  • An animal that has been injured or is otherwise in distress and in need of assistance to survive or rehabilitation, whether or not the intention is to release it back into its natural wild habitat

The amendments mean the three cetaceans currently at the aquarium will be allowed to stay but cannot be included in shows or performances of any kind.

The aquarium and its supporters say this policy puts rescued or endangered animals at risk and jeopardizes their fate. It is also concerned the Department of Fisheries and Oceans may not rescue injured cetaceans if there is no place for them to go.

READ MORE: Rescued sea lion suffering from gunshot wounds

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“You rescue harbour seals, go ahead and do that, but no, no — you’ve got to leave cetaceans to die a death on the beach or have a federal officer put a bullet in them,” Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale said.

Those who cannot attend the rally are also encouraged to send a letter to the Park Board voicing their support for the aquarium.

Meanwhile, those opposing the aquarium’s marine mammal rescue program held their own rally on Saturday for the fifth consecutive year.

READ MORE: Protesters call for ban on cetacean captivity days ahead of pivotal vote

The Empty the Tanks rally is an annual event held at sites across the globe demanding aquariums and marine parks release whales, dolphins and porpoises held captive for the purposes of research, education or entertainment.

While animal rights activists have been calling for a ban for many years, Matthews said the issue gained traction in recent months following the death of two beluga whales, named Qila and Aurora, last fall.

“I think it’s woken a lot of people up to the reality of captivity and that these animals don’t do well in confined spaces like this, and if they’re going to be in captivity, they need to be in more amenable situations like sea-pen sanctuaries,” Matthews said.

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But the clash between supporters of the aquarium and people who oppose its programs has not always been a polite dialogue.

According to aquarium staff, protesters have thrown vile insults at staff and volunteers, calling them things like “murderers” and “monsters.” Even Park Board commissioners have hurled cutting remarks.

Green Party Park Board Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon recently compared the aquarium’s programs to what scientists did in Nazi Germany.

“In the last century, both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army committed atrocities in the name of science,” Mackinnon said at the March 8 Park Board meeting.

Remarks like this, the aquarium said, brought several employees to tears during the public meetings.

Marcus Wernicke, a volunteer with the aquarium since 2013 and a board member for the Porpoise Conservation Society, says he’s been the subject of countless attacks from protesters.

“Some of them are quite abusive and aggressive at times,” Wernicke said. “They say things like ‘You enable murder’ and ‘You help them to kill animals.'”

He says their arguments simply don’t hold up to scrutiny.

“[They] basically just make stuff up and post it online,” he said. “Once you don’t agree with them, you get one insult after another.”
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He thinks it’s this sort of aggression and organization that helped to persuade the Park Board to vote for the cetacean ban.

“These animal rights activists are very organized and protest just about anything. They are very well organized. They are lobbyists. They work for professional organizations that work for the animals rights cause.”

On the contrary, Wernicke — who calls himself an animal welfare activist — says aquarium supporters have often been too quiet and not proactive enough to fight for their cause.

While he feels the Park Board has mostly made up their mind regarding Monday night’s vote, he’s hoping the rally could convince them to add an exception for rescued cetaceans that cannot be released back into the wild.

The meeting is not open for public speaking, despite dozens of requests from aquarium supporters to make it an open platform, Wernicke said.

Wernicke expects parties from both sides of the issue will be present at the rally, which he says is the last chance to get the word out. For that reason, he says he’s a little bit “on the edge” about how some protesters will behave.

“Supporters are wondering if it’s safe if they bring their children,” Wernicke said. “I don’t know. [Some protesters] go right into your face and they hurl insults at you.”
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If Park Board commissioners vote to enact the ban on Monday, the changes will be implemented immediately.

— With files from the Canadian Press and Jon Azpiri