The Activist and the Aquarium

David Isbister’s fight to end cetacean captivity in Stanley Park may soon come to an end. So what should we do with those animals instead?

I meet David Isbister in the back corner of an industrial kitchen where he’s set up a booth to sell his homemade vegan foods. When I get there, he calls from over a wall, and tells me to take a right so I don’t have to see others in the space prep meat. We shake hands and I recognize his jet-black hair, expressive face, and two-inch ear gauges. He’s easy to remember: the last time I saw him was at a meeting of the Vancouver Park Board on March 9, when he stood in front of Dr. John Nightingale, Vancouver Aquarium president and CEO, and led No More Dead Cetaceans (the group he started, which has since carried the torch on this latest round of anti-captivity activism in Vancouver) in chants of “Shame on you.” It is apparently something he is at least a little conflicted over.“I already feel bad a lot of the time, because I’m in the media being like ‘Well, John Nightingale’s a dick,’ but then I’m like ‘Oh, this is a person.’ But he deserves it now. I honestly don’t wish him harm, but I certainly…I don’t wish him well.”Still smiling, he offers me some vegan chocolate. It’s surprisingly good.David Isbister, far right, leads a small group of protesters outside the Vancouver Aquarium this spring. Photo: Jackson WeaverImmediately after the Vancouver Park Board announced its intention to ban the display of cetaceans in Stanley Park in March, a report by Dr. John Ford, head of the Cetacean Research Program for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada until his retirement last month, seemed to confirm the worst fears of the aquarium’s supporters. Without a long-term home for rescued cetaceans deemed ineligible for release, the ban could well result in future rescues being euthanized. The response by Dr. Marin Haulena, the aquarium’s head veterinarian, was incredulous: “I can’t honestly believe that this is what people want.” And, honestly, who would? If the Park Board’s intent is to improve outcomes for these animals, isn’t the aquarium’s ability to provide a long-term home for injured animals integral to their health and wellbeing? Who would fight for this ban under the guise of animal rights if it simply results in a reduced capacity to care for them?

“They’re saying that as a specific manipulation tool,” he says of the DFO report. “It’s emotional blackmail of the public.”

This is what I wanted to find out for myself when I reached out to Isbister. For our city, the crux of the issue is whether captivity is a necessary evil. In a 2014 poll by Insights West, 45 percent of British Columbians answered that they believe animals in captivity suffer and 27 percent said that they weren’t sure. Meanwhile, 62 percent said they believe zoos and aquariums are still necessary. Many people think animals in tanks and cages aren’t happy, and yet consent that the tanks and cages must continue to be filled. Isbister doesn’t see it that way.“They’re saying that as a specific manipulation tool,” he says of the DFO report. “It’s emotional blackmail of the public. They say that if we cannot display them captive, we’ll kill them. Or you’ll kill them. Those animal rights people killed them. The same old cycle of adversarial conflict where they vilify us, we’re forced to vilify them, and then we compare rhetoric.”

A Clash of Ideology

Raised in Vancouver, Isbister has always worked with animals and has never eaten meat—he grew up vegetarian. He found his way to animal activism through working as an animal handler for the film industry. He’s not proud of this part of his life, which included brief training stints at various zoos, and working in the retail pet trade of exotic reptiles and fish. But it’s because of those experiences that he balks at the argument that keeping animals in captivity is necessary to save them. “The theme of captivity for me is when anyone tries to reduce or conflate their oppression of animals for profit with, like, help or rescue, that makes me insane. I worked in captivity,” he tells me. “I know all the tricks. I’m from that mindset.”Photo Jackson WeaverIsbister says he is against the aquarium for the shortcomings he perceives in the welfare of their animals, but he also harbours an inherent mistrust of animal captivity in general.There’s an ideological chasm between the protestors and the aquarium; they both have their own experts, and are resolute in disbelief of the other’s findings. Where Dr. John Ford stated there could be euthanization of cetaceans following the ban, Isbister called it rhetoric; when I spoke with Dr. John Nightingale, the aquarium’s president and CEO, he used the same word, characterizing the protestors’ complaints as “just rhetoric designed to sway the public to their point.” And this is fair; it’s difficult to construe the aquarium’s rescue efforts as abuse when the cetaceans currently in its care likely wouldn’t be alive at all if it weren’t for the organization or its facilities in Stanley Park. Many, when presented with these conflicting opinions, give more credence to the accredited source, the aquarium. Isbister, on the other hand, looks at me somewhat flustered when I say this.“I don’t know why they get to say it once: ‘Oh we’re rescue,’ and everyone’s just like ‘Oh yeah, they’re rescue.’ I have to be on every single news channel with anyone who will watch, giving the most perfectly manicured soundbites I can possibly deliver in the moment, for like six people to .” He sighs, and appears to run out of steam somewhat before continuing. “We have to stop believing that the place that can benefit from the profit on captivity is going to tell us the truth about the negatives about captivity.” (It bears note that the Vancouver Aquarium is a non-profit organization which publishes its financial documents each year.)

READ MOREWorking At the Vancouver Aquarium Changed My View on Cetaceans in Captivity

Isbister’s group, No More Dead Cetaceans, has been pushing their opinion of the truth through protest action and pamphlets leading up to and following the Park Board’s recent decision. No More Dead Cetaceans is an outgrowth of Vanaquafacts, a website Isbister edits in conjunction with GVZoofacts, both of which seek to have the respective facilities closed, or at least seriously overhauled. It is nearly impossible to tally the group’s size, as it operates in an intentionally non-hierarchical fashion. There are no leaders or member rolls in order to avoid “the unnecessary lawsuits,” such as the one currently on appeal against Gary Charbonneau—maker of the documentary Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered—who was sued for copyright infringement over clips included in the film.However, it’s not just unclear how many people support Isbister’s group, it’s equally difficult to gauge support for the impending ban. Both the Park Board and the Vancouver Aquarium have, at different times, claimed the public is on their side. This week, in fact, the Vancouver Aquarium released the results of an Angus Reid survey it commissioned that found 95 percent of Metro Vancouverites agree the facility should continue to provide ongoing care for non-releasable, rescued cetaceans at its Stanley Park location—a practice that would end under the proposed ban, which goes to a final vote on May 15. (Cetaceans currently in its care would be allowed to stay, however future rescues would not be allowed to be housed long-term at the aquarium.)Photo Jackson Weaver The Park Board, however, has its own interpretation of public opinion, claiming its proposal to ban cetaceans at the aquarium is reflective of a shift in societal beliefs about animals in captivity.At a press conference last month, commissioner Michael Wiebe told a reporter the board received over 10,000 emails on the subject and met with scientists at the aquarium before deciding on the extent of the proposed ban. “We were really well researched on this; this wasn’t us listening to five or six really loud activists, this was us making a very educated decision,” he said.“So you’d rather have those animals die, or be taken to another facility that has questionable credentials as opposed to the Vancouver Aquarium?” the reporter responded.

“So you’d rather have those animals die, or be taken to another facility that has questionable credentials as opposed to the Vancouver Aquarium?”

“I would rather that animal be taken care of in the water in the ocean it is in. I would like that animal to be taken care of in the , or if it’s a sea pen or a sanctuary or anything else. Our board has been very vocal that there are a lot of different avenues for that animal to be taken care of, and it just will not happen at the Vancouver Aquarium.”That may eventually be true, but at present those alternative avenues all lead to a dead end.

(Non)viable Alternatives?

Earlier that day, I was led through the facility to the brilliant blue observation windows looking in on a cetacean tank where Dr. Haulena, Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian, and Dr. Nightingale addressed a bank of microphones and cameras on the subject of the proposed ban. As they spoke, Helen (a double-amputee, Pacific white-sided dolphin rescued from a fishing net in Japan) and Chester (the false-killer whale rescued by the aquarium after stranding on a beach in Tofino) swam up and down the enclosure behind them. It is extremely likely, if not certain, that both these animals would be dead without the intervention of the Vancouver Aquarium. Few people are against this type of action, at least in theory; no one seems to want the Vancouver Aquarium to cease rescuing cetaceans, and, after that, rehabilitating them. It’s the third step, display and captivity, that has fuelled the decades-long debate.I ask Dr. Nightingale about the feasibility of one commonly raised alternative: a sea pen. This oft-suggested replacement for aquariums would function similar to the animal sanctuaries used for larger land animals, except rather than designating a few hectares of forest or jungle, they’d fence a large area of aquatic habitat off the coast.Dr. John Nightingale addresses reporters at a recent press conference at the Vancouver Aquarium. Photo Jackson Weaver
“First there aren’t any, so it’s a hypothetical question,” Nightingale responds bluntly. It’s true. While the idea of sea pen sanctuaries has widespread appeal, so far they remain theoretical. The National Aquarium in Baltimore MD is set to become the first organization in North America to open a sea pen sanctuary in 2020, when it plans to relocate its bottlenose dolphins to an as-yet-undetermined location along the Florida or Caribbean coast. It has not released a cost estimate for the project. Closer to home, a nonprofit group called the Whale Sanctuary Project is currently looking to establish a cold-water sea sanctuary for cetaceans either off the coast of B.C. or Washington, or on the East Coast off Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or Maine. The project, which is in its infancy, is estimated to cost at least $20 million and a timeline has not been set. Even if those sanctuaries do become a reality, Nightingale is skeptical they’ll provide a better life for the animals. In the past, the aquarium has held cetaceans in smaller ocean enclosures called net-pens, but they “don’t provide great animal care,” he says. “With a pool you can look in the window, you can see the animals, they’re trained so that if the vet wants to take their temperature they’ll come over and have their temperature taken, their blood drawn.”

“What would you want? Do you want to live in someone’s fucking tank, or do you want to just die?”

Dr. Haulena raised similar concerns, adding that the sheer size, scale, and logistical requirements of these proposed sanctuaries make them “at least for now, a very far-fetched idea.”For Isbister though, the idea should at least be something to aim for. He lists a DFO research station in Burrard Inlet—which the Vancouver Aquarium has used for short-term captive research—and the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, essentially an animal hospital, in East Vancouver as potential sites for long-term care of non-releasable cetaceans. It’s his opinion that those haven’t been explored due to greed for profit. “The difference with those sites is that $37 million of revenue can’t come through those sites,” he says.Chester, the false killer whale, will be the last rescued cetacean to reside at the Vancouver Aquarium if the ban is passed. Photo Vancouver AquariumMotivation, feasibility and costs aside, however, the fact remains these sites are not in any way outfitted for this type of use. As things stand, the only options for rescued but non-releasable cetaceans in Canada remain the same as they have been for decades: display or death.A third option might emerge down the line, but it’s unclear yet if a ban will spur innovation or remove the ability to help. In the meantime at least some cetaceans will be rescued in our coastal area that will be ineligible for release. I ask Isbister point blank: given this reality, what should we do with these animals now?He answers my question with one of his own.“What would you want? Do you want to live in someone’s fucking tank, or do you want to just die?” he says, back in that industrial kitchen where he shielded me from the sight of others butchering meat. “For me, being the radical, militant-whatever-activist-y person, I don’t know that I’d want to live in prison for some other motherfucker. Honestly. Rescue is based on release. You don’t get someone off the mountain, and say, ‘Now you’re going to be in jail forever, but you’re alive.’”He went on.“Really the intellectual side of it matters less against it just being straight up immoral to imprison animals for our benefit.” I point out the aquarium has been adamant that keeping cetaceans in captivity has a net benefit to its conservation, education and research goals. But that doesn’t satisfy Isbister. “Even if it was a benefit, I would still be against it. Even if it did benefit the Arctic, even if half of what they say is true it still might not be worth it,” he says, in his quick, impassioned patter. “We could still probably do it another way.”