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Battle over Belugas
Lisa Twyman Bessone
November 16, 1992
The death of two beluga whales in Chicago has intensified the debate about their captivity
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November 16, 1992

Battle Over Belugas

The death of two beluga whales in Chicago has intensified the debate about their captivity

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The Shedd Aquarium's $43 million addition, built to house the belugas, is billed as the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world. Its three interconnecting pools make up an area 47 times the size required by federal law. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Lake Michigan, creating the illusion that the whales' pool flows into the lake's waters beyond the windows. Natural light floods the area. A Pacific Northwest rain forest has been re-created with nature trails, running streams and volcanic rock formations—all of which surround the pools.

But back in the spring of '89, it looked as though the Shedd might not get any whales for its grand digs. Animal-welfare activists had been successful in obtaining a restraining order that prevented the Shedd from acquiring false killer whales (which resemble killer whales but are smaller and all-black) from Japan. And at first, efforts to get belugas for the aquarium were similarly hampered. In the summer of 1989, when the Shedd officials planned to travel to Canada to collect whales, the aquarium's addition was still 15 months from completion. The Canadian agency that oversees the exportation of marine mammals declared a Miami holding site for the Shedd whales to be unsuitable. But then Illinois's governor at the time, James Thompson, stepped in to help. Thompson, who realized the value of the whales in terms of prestige for the state's largest city, got in touch with Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney. Thompson, who was the head of a governors' task force on global environment, reportedly intimated to Mulroney that since Illinois supports legislation to protect Canada's forests and waterways from acid rain, Canada might want to reciprocate by helping Chicago acquire its whales.

Canadian help was crucial because though there are beluga populations from Greenland to the Gulf of Alaska, only those living in Canada's Hudson Bay are suitable for capture. Thousands of them roam the Arctic. But conditions there are harsh, and the animals, capable of diving deeper than 1,000 feet, have miles of ocean in which to elude would-be captors. Another, more accessible population lives in the St. Lawrence River. But that waterway is so contaminated with PCBs and other pollutants that many of the beluga carcasses that wash ashore must be disposed of as toxic waste. The third area is Canada's Hudson Bay. Every year the whales migrate a mile up the Churchill River, which empties into the bay, to one particularly shallow section outside the town of Churchill, an ideal spot for capturing the animals.

Canada agreed to grant the Shedd whale permits after an aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., offered to house the whales temporarily. In 1989-90 two nine-foot belugas, which in the wild migrate up to 100 miles a day, spent 18 months swimming in a Tacoma holding tank 30 feet in diameter and seven feet deep.

Not surprisingly, environmental groups tried to block the first capture as well as the one in August. Leone Pippard, an independent researcher, has investigated wild belugas for 10 years. "I've observed a great deal of caring, social affiliations among the whales," she says. "Young males go off and form a bachelor herd where they play with what can only be described as their friends. There are strong female-to-offspring bonds. But also, when some of the females go off to hunt, a 'nanny' will look after the nursery. I've seen up to 10 whales form a huge circle, their heads in the center, and seem to do nothing more than communicate with each other."

Wearing a wet suit, Ken Ramirez addresses the 1,000 people who pack the Shedd's amphitheater five times a day. During these presentations the whales, along with the aquarium's four Pacific white-sided dolphins, are encouraged to behave as they might in the wild. Ramirez tells the crowd that it is imperative not only to protect these animals but also to protect their environment and their food chains.

Later, when asked how people might help, Ramirez says, "Stop ocean dumping, drift nets, pollution and all the other problems, so that suddenly the world is a perfect place. People use the world as if it is ours for the taking. I want more people to care about and protect the oceans that belugas swim in. Seeing these animals is an excellent way to make people care."

He may be right, but white rhinos and elephants have been on display in zoos for decades. All the while their numbers in the wild have dwindled, and they arc now close to the point of extinction.

"Whales are so very special to us," says Memorial University's Lien. "If we can't protect them, how can we hope to protect anything on this planet?"

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