At Long Last, Canada Passes a Bill That Will One Day End the Keeping of Whales and Dolphins in Captivity

Ban Comes After More Than 30 Years of Public Protest at Amusement Parks like Marineland in Niagara Falls

A News Commentary by Doug Draper

Posted June 11th, 2019 on Niagara At Large

Animal welfare activists demonstrating this May 18th, on opening day in front of Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario

When I first heard the news earlier this June 11th that Bill S-203 – known as the “Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act” or more commonly as the “Free Willy Act” after the whale that was freed from a marine aquarium in a 1990s Hollywood movie – was passed by a majority in Canada’s parliament this June 10th, I was tempted to begin this commentary with a play on words from the last line of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

“Free at last. Free at last Thank God Almighty, Willy is free at last.”

But then that seems far too trite for such a milestone moment in the long and sorry history of keeping marine mammals in captivity in Canada, and it isn’t even completely correct.

It is true that if this newly passed ban is not overturned if Andrew Scheer’s Tories get elected in this October’s federal election, amusement parks like Marineland in Niagara Falls and the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia will no longer be able to breed marine mammals that they have or to take any more in that have been plucked from their ocean homes.

Large numbers of protesters from across Ontario gather in front of Marineland on Labour Day weekend last year.

However, they will be able to keep the animals they now have, unless they ship them off to other countries like Spain, where captivity is still allowed, and Marineland still reportedly has quite a few beluga whales and the only remaining orca (improperly called “killer whales”) in their Niagara Falls display facilities.

So the passage of this bill after at least a couple of years of trying to get it, or something quite like it, through to third and final reading, does not end all captivity now, but it is a major step toward an end to this controversial practice anyway.

A poster for the 1990s Hollywood film ‘Free Willy’. The whale depicted in the film actually spent some of its early life at Marineland

And it is long overdue.

It was some 30 or so years ago, while I was still working as an environment reporter at The St. Catharines Standard, that I recall some of the earlier efforts by Niagara area animal advocacy individuals like Dan Wilson and groups like Niagara Action for Animals, or Nafa for short, with people like Catherine Ens at the helm, picketing in front of Marineland and facing no end of derision from the park’s operators and from area politicians who swept any questions or concerns for the animals aside because they could only see or only wanted to see the park as a cash cow.

And there were all of the individuals and groups from far away like CBC’s ‘Nature of Things’ program host and scientist David Suzuki, marine mammal expert Dr. Naomi Rose with the Humane Society of the United States, Rick O’Barry, an American animal activist and dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV show ‘Flipper’, Vancouver, B.C. marine mammal scientist Dr. Paul Spong, and all of the dedicated people who have worked over the years for the non-profit citizens group Zoocheck Canada – people like Rob Laidlaw, Holly Penfound, Brian McHattie and Julie Woodyer who would never shrink from speaking out for an end to marine mammal captivity.

All photos of demonstrations at Marineland by Doug Draper

There were also all of the former Marineland staff and trainers who spoke out, including Phil Demers who still is despite a still outstanding lawsuit the park hit him with more than five years ago now.

All of those people and more deserve some of the credit for Bill S-203 finally passing this June 10th.

Yet for every one of them, there were countless thousands who poured through the gates of parks like Marineland, and continue to, because for some perverse reason, they find the sight of these magnificent, intelligent animals circling around in cement ponds amusing or interesting.

A whale leaping in the waters of the Atlantic off Cape Cod, where whales and dolphins belong.

As someone who has often witnessed the spectacle of whales and dolphins gliding in their natural ocean environment off Cape Cod, I could never imagine how anyone, including teachers who would take classes of young kids to these parks, could watch an old dolphin like Duke (one I remember at Marineland when I went there to do research for stories) circling around endlessly in an above-ground glass tank and find that to be fun or fulfilling.

You can criticize the owners and operators of parks like Marineland all you want, but it is all of the countless thousands of people who buy tickets at the gates who have kept the marine mammal captivity business alive.

And I can only say shame on them.

But hey, this June 10th, in the Parliament of Canada, there was finally a victory for these great animals.

With that, I will leave the last word to one of the most dedicated animal advocates I’ve met over the past 40 years as a journalist – Catherine Ens of NAfA.

NAfA leader Catherine Ens at one of a number of demonstrations in front of Marineland in 2018

“Basically, all I want to say is this,” she said in a note she sent Niagara At Large just before we posted this news commentary. “After 30 years of campaigning for all the animals at Marineland, I am delighted that the federal government chose to listen to Canadians on this issue.”

“However, we are still concerned for the animals that are ‘grand-fathered in’ and who will ultimately end their lives in captivity,” Catherine Ens said. “We also stand for the land animals at Marineland (deer, bears and other non-marine animals) and hope that perhaps Marineland will have a real change of heart and focus now on a theme park without animals.”

Amen to that – Doug Draper, Niagara At Large



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“A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders



2 responses to “At Long Last, Canada Passes a Bill That Will One Day End the Keeping of Whales and Dolphins in Captivity

  1. Lawrence Pinsky

    Excellent piece. A great step. Maybe, in time, we’ll see even tougher laws…MAYBE humans are starting to learn a little.


  2. “when your environment consists of traveling 100 miles a day, you can never justify a swimming pool to live in.”


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