Two adolescent female beluga whales swim lazily about their state-of-the-art pool in Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium. The belugas are about nine feet long and look like marshmallow dolphins, white and pudgy, their mouths upturned in benign grins. Belugas can turn their heads—few cetaceans possess such a physiological quirk—giving them a friendly and inquisitive air. The aquarium's crowds, which have been at record levels since the whales first went on display in April 1991, delight in watching the gentle creatures surface, peer at the people peering at them, then quietly dive beneath the water.
This scene is deceptively tranquil. Recently the Shedd, a not-for-profit aquarium that first opened more than 60 years ago, has been the site of numerous protests. And as they have been doing for the past three years, animal-welfare groups throughout the world continue to file legal suits to prevent belugas from being taken into captivity. Lately the battle has escalated. In September two of the Shedd's six belugas died, prompting the governments of Canada and the U.S. to join in an investigation into what killed the seemingly healthy captive whales.
The two belugas were part of a group of four that were captured in Canada by the Shedd in August. The two males and two females were being acclimated to their new surroundings and had yet to join the two females that had been on display since 1991. But after three weeks in the aquarium's care, two of the four new whales—a male and a female—died 20 minutes after receiving routine injections to treat lung parasites. A necropsy found the cause of death to be heart failure, though why the animals' hearts stopped remains a mystery. Also troubling were the credentials of the veterinarian who administered the injections; he was not licensed to practice in Illinois, though he was licensed in California.
Animal-welfare groups contend that it is unethical to take whales from their social groups in the sea and place them in aquariums for entertainment and profit. These animals aren't endangered and survive perfectly well in the wild on their own. "What kind of message is that?" says Joy Pote-Stanford, coordinator of the Midwest chapter of the Miami-based Dolphin Project, an organization dedicated to the protection and understanding of the dolphin and other whales. "That the world and all its beings are for humans to exploit as they see fit?"
"We're all environmentalists here," says Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's assistant curator of marine mammals. "We're just on opposite sides of the philosophical fence." Shedd officials argue that only by seeing the whales up close can urban dwellers appreciate, and thereby feel compelled to protect, these magnificent creatures.
Last year in the U.S., more than 32 million visitors went to see marine mammals in zoos, aquariums, oceanariums and marine life parks, such as the Sea Worlds. Some 30 U.S. cities are considering new aquariums, and most of these facilities hope to house belugas.
"People tend to look at whales in human terms," says Jon Lien, professor of animal behavior at Memorial University, in St. John's, Newfoundland. Me has been studying the relation between whales and humans for the past 15 years. "Because whales communicate and exhibit complex social behavior, people assume that they are more like us than other animals."
Partly as a result of these perceptions, efforts to ban the capture of whales and other marine mammals are gaining momentum. For the past 12 years the state of Washington has enforced a moratorium on the capture of killer whales, or orcas, off its shores. There is a similar moratorium on the capture of bottle-nosed dolphins along the Gulf Coast of Florida, and recently South Carolina passed legislation banning the display of captive marine mammals within its borders.
Research done by the U.S. Humane Society shows that more than half of the marine mammals taken into captivity die prematurely. "It is apparent to us that these animals suffer," says Paula Jewell, the society's program coordinator for wildlife and habitat protection. "There are a lot of problems—injuries, illnesses, death, behavioral changes."
For instance, three years ago an audience at San Diego's Sea World watched in horror as one killer whale rammed another and broke its jaw. The injured whale bled to death. Six months later an audience in Victoria, B.C., watched a show in which three orcas performed. Afterward their trainer fed them. As she left the pool area, she slipped and fell into the water, and the whales tossed her in the air as they would a seal and dragged her under the water until she drowned.