Saturday, February 2, 2008

Marineland's Nootka should have lived free

Niagara This Week - February 1, 2008

By Doug Draper, Reporter's View

Winter, with its short days and long nights, has never been my time of year. Spring and summer, when the days are long and warm, and the world is alive in vibrant colour, have always hit the spot for me.

So in the cold gray of January, when darkness is still bearing down on us at seven in the morning, my mind sometimes takes me on a therapeutic journey back to a moment my family and I enjoyed the previous summer.

This January, one of those journeys included a morning late last August when we drove out to Provincetown, Mass., on the sandy tip of Cape Cod, and boarded one of the vessels of the Dolphin Fleet - a company that has been partnering with marine mammal experts from the Centre for Coastal Studies for more than 30 years to provide some of the finest whale-watching excursions in the coastal waters off New England.

On that journey, which took us to Stellwagen Bank - a fertile feeding ground for fish and marine mammals north of the Cape - we stood on deck in silent awe as humpback whales, one of the largest and most mysterious animals on this Earth, glided by us and as pods of dolphins danced, in synchrony, in our wake.

There was no one there hunting down these magnificent mammals, either as a source of food or as a subject of entertainment for a circus or a zoo. Stellwagen Bank is a U.S. protected marine mammal sanctuary, and it was made clear to us from the moment we left shore that we were passive guests in a sanctuary for some of the greatest creatures we have the privilege of sharing this earth with.

I thought about this journey again last week when I learned that a marine mammal, living entirely out of her natural element died on Jan. 8 at the popular Marineland amusement park in Niagara Falls.

That marine mammal was an orca, known more popularly by we humans, who have a tendency to stigmatize any wild creature we don't understand as unpredictable or dangerous, as a killer whale.

Her name was Nootka, who'd been captured for a life in show business off the shores of Iceland in 1979, and had spent many of her 40 or so years on this Earth performing tricks and splashing countless thousands of onlookers, clicking their point-and-shoot cameras in the front rows of Marineland's King Waldorf Theatre.

Nootka's passing triggered enough emotion to make the blogs.

"I am so saddened by this," said one blog writer. "I remember Nootka and she was the whale I stood in line to touch and feed over at (Marineland's) Friendship Cove."

"This sucks," added another. "That whale kicked butt! Splash sessions were amazing when she was in them."

Marineland marked Nootka's passing with remarks that were a little more sedate.

"We were heartbroken," Marineland spokeswoman Ann Marie Rondinelli was quoted as saying. "We don't like to play favourites, but (Nootka) was definitely loved by everybody."

Dan Wilson, a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident who has worked for years with the Niagara Centre for Animal Rights Awareness and Toronto-based Zoocheck to raise public awareness about what he feels is the cruelty of keeping these great mammals in captivity, says he's feeling heartbroken too.

"I'm surprised when Marineland staff say they're upset each and every time a whale dies at the park," Wilson told me following Nootka's passing. "Don't they realize that the reason the animals keep dying is the very captivity they've forced upon them?"

"If Marineland really cared about the animals' well-being," said Wilson, "it would stop taking them out of the wild, cease its captive breeding program and, instead of replacing dead whales with new ones, it would replace them with more amusement park rides. People would still come and the bottom line would be the same - lots of money for Marineland. Only the animals' suffering would end."

John Holer, Marineland's founder, once told me told me he never wanted to build a park like Wonderland where "there is strictly rides, rides, rides." A close encounter with wild animals, he said, is also a big attraction for people.

Holer is right in the sense that countless thousands of people flock to Marineland each year for the amusement of watching whales and dolphins perform tricks for them in pools holding a spit of water compared to the seas they would otherwise live out their lives in.

Orcas can live 50 to 80 years in the wild but, unfortunately, Nootka could not "kick butt" enough to escape capture from the pod she was plucked away from in open seas, where she could have been left to live out a natural life - a world away from a cement tub full of chlorinated water, and free.

1 comment:

Amy Zupan said...

Your post is wonderful. Full of emotion, yet articulate and written calmly enough to convey your point clearly without over-shadowing with the often too present vulgarity of many posts I've read.

I, growing up in Port Colborne (20 minutes from Niagara Falls, was 'treated' to a visit to Marineland as a child.

What I remember clearly of that experience was meeting a blind seal lion (due to a life kept in chlorinated water) and deer with protruding ribs and bloodied antlers. I remember people feeding bears marshmallows, which alarmed me, especially when the bears yawned and revealed rotted teeth! I remember the whales, so majestic in the wild, looking forlorn and doing silly tricks for a fish or two.
Thank you for giving the animals a voice.