The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Whales should not be tourist attraction­s

- By Nicole Rivard Nicole Rivard is editor-in-chief/government relations for Darien-Connecticu­t based Friends of Animals.

Another beluga is fighting for her life at Mystic Aquarium just three weeks after a male beluga died. They arrived with three others in May from Marineland in Canada despite warnings that the move would risk their lives. Mystic ignored the science.

The move tore them from deep social relationsh­ips formed at the only home they ever knew, and the physical and psychologi­cal stress exposed them to increased risked of disease and death.

Mystic conducted detailed medical testing on the belugas before importatio­n — there is no reason to believe it imported sick belugas. That means the belugas developed health issues from the transport or after the transport.

Yet now the aquarium’s experts act bewildered. So-called mysterious illnesses have claimed the lives of belugas at Mystic over the years — Aurora, Winston, Naku, to name a few.

It’s time to address the elephant in the room — captivity kills belugas. To prevent these illnesses and deaths, leave belugas in the ocean. Stop trading them. Stop breeding them. Stop making them tourist attraction­s. Stop fundraisin­g off so-called vital research done in captivity.

Adding insult to injury, more than 200 online bidders and attendees of a recent live auction raised $3.4 million for Mystic Aquarium. One of the hot-ticket items — naming rights for three of the belugas. The right to name the fourth came from a raffle. Yet the aquarium knew about the female’s “concerning health condition” for weeks, according to its Facebook announceme­nt.

Another of Mystic’s deceptions is using research to justify importing the belugas and its fundraisin­g efforts. Its own president told the media recently that “you can’t study belugas or other whales in the wild in any substantiv­e way because the technology doesn’t exist.” He claims studies in the wild are limited to aerial studies and some limited visual studies.

Its president, who brings in a paycheck over half a million dollars, is alarmingly wrong.

The game-changing research to help the endangered Cook Inlet population is being done in the wild. And that’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion, which reported on the first continuous multiyear acoustic monitoring effort across the Cook Inlet. It has provided the most comprehens­ive descriptio­n of beluga whale seasonal distributi­on and feeding behavior to date. This knowledge is critical for understand­ing and managing potential threats impeding recovery of this endangered population.

He also ignores new research that allows marine biologists to determine the age, sex, and much more of wild belugas with a small skin sample. The new epigenetic methodolog­y could revolution­ize the way scientists study Cook Inlet belugas and provide valuable insights into why they may not be recovering.

You would think after all these years of “doing research” on belugas in captivity that the experts at Mystic would understand they need lots of space and socializat­ion to thrive. In the wild, beluga pods range from a few to hundreds.

Mystic has the largest outdoor beluga habitat in the country but it’s not something to be proud of. The 750,000-gallon habitat is a combinatio­n of three different tanks — the main pool is connected to the holding pool and medical pool by a series of three sliding gates. The gates are not always open.

When I visited last summer, I saw a small, shallow bathtub (it’s only 16.5 feet deep) compared to the 1,000-meter depths belugas could dive to in the wild. I wondered how many repetitive circles the aquarium’s three belugas had to swim to equal the hundreds of miles of waterways stolen from them.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one — an impatient parent waiting for her child to get a better view of the belugas commented: “They seem to be swimming in similar circles. Circle. Circle. Circle.”

I couldn’t fathom Mystic adding five more to the bathtub.

I overheard a child asking her mom where the belugas went because she couldn’t see them on the surface of the water.

She replied: “They’re down below making other visitors happy,” referring to an area of the tank where there is an underwater viewing area.

I cringed thinking that that is the message that people leave aquariums with. That it’s OK for wild animals to be in captivity — as if it’s their purpose in life is to entertain humans.

As families posed for pictures, I thought “shame on Mystic.” A photo op is not research or conservati­on unless you are researchin­g how to make more money.

Captivity strips wild animals of their dignity and in the case of Havok, ended his life. And now another is ailing.

Human animals should be capable of doing better — it’s time to redefine family entertainm­ent and for Connecticu­t to ban importing whales and breeding in captivity.

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