Back in 1980, environmental advocate and childrens’ entertainer Raffi released the song “Baby Beluga.”
If it weren’t for Kavna — the beluga whale that was on display at the Vancouver Aquarium at the time — he might have never written the blissful ballad often associated with childhood memories today.
That was the ‘80s. Now, the impact of wildlife captivity for the sake of scientific research needs to be questioned.
In a recent proposal, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta applied for a federal permit to import 18 beluga whales to be divided among a group of marine parks in the U.S.
The Georgia Aquarium’s proposal stated that marine parks needed the endangered whales for “captive breeding efforts, research and education.”
The marine parks involved with the proposed plan — and coincidentally the prices each park plans to pay for the whales — have not been released.
While the public display of marine life may be seen to have strict educational intentions, there is a conflict between captive research and the public display of wildlife for the purpose of entertainment.
The proposal may be beneficial for building a captive breeding population for the threatened species, but it fails to recognize the scientific importance of the belugas’ natural habitat.
According to National Geographic’s website, beluga whales are known to be extremely social mammals with complex migrational patterns. As acoustic communicators, beluga whales primarily travel in pods where social interaction is critical to the survival of the species.
Inability to provide an environment that will meet the needs of the animals may hinder any research aimed toward preventing the species from becoming endangered.
Only a natural habitat can facilitate this environment — and any effort toward replicating one in captivity is poised to fail.
The reasoning behind the Georgia Aquarium’s request does highlight a necessary effort to preserve the beluga whale species. But with so many factors working against the ability to replicate a suitable environment for the whales, the only effective aspect of the animals’ import would be for the sake of public display.
The New York Times reported that at least four of the nation’s largest marine parks currently invite visitors to “don wetsuits and pet or be nuzzled by the animals for $140 to $250.” The publication added that the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago also offers couples a “romantic wading experience that can culminate in a marriage proposal with Champagne, strawberries and the beluga as a de facto chaperon.”
Whether or not this sounds appealing, the species should not be imported solely for the purpose of public entertainment and inevitably flawed methods of research.
Educating the public about issues in the scientific community is just as important as solving them.
The displacement of animals from their natural habitats for the sake of flawed research not only detracts from the proposal’s intent of scientific research, but the education of animal behavior is critical to understanding wildlife as a whole.