Categories
Media Release

Undercover video shows dogs chained, pacing at Whistler sled dog kennel

Vancouver – Video taken by animal advocates and provided to the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) allegedly shows sled dogs being held in cages and on chains in a barren yard at a kennel operated by Blackcomb Dogsled, a Whistler-based sled dog tour company.

The dogs in the video, seen here, are showing stereotypic behaviour, which is a purposeless repetitive action indicating psychological suffering. The dogs can be seen pacing back and forth in cages and repeatedly running in circles around the posts they are chained to.

“No dog should have to live like this,” said VHS projects and communications director Peter Fricker. “The dogs in the video are being denied the freedom to engage in normal behaviours, including socializing with other dogs or with human companions.”

VHS is launching a campaign calling on the B.C. government to update the provincial Sled Dog Standards of Care Regulation to conform to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Canadian Kennel Operations, which states that: “Tethering of dogs (i.e., chains or ropes used to tie the dog to an immoveable object such as a stake or building) is not allowable as a method of confining a dog to a primary enclosure, nor as the only means of containment.” 

The Kennel Code also requires that: “Dogs are housed in such a way as to allow them to display natural behaviours, to socialize with or without other species of animals and humans, as appropriate, and to protect public safety.”

Fricker said the conditions shown in the video are not uncommon in sled dog operations across Canada and are not illegal. “These conditions are deplorable, yet there is nothing in the law to protect sled dogs from being treated this way.” He said VHS is urging the public to boycott sled dog tours.

B.C.’s Sled Dog Standards of Care Regulation, introduced after the infamous 2010 killing of 56 sled dogs in Whistler, still allows dogs to be tethered for up to 23 hours a day. The standards also allow sled dog tour companies in B.C. to shoot surplus sled dogs, provided the operator has “made reasonable efforts to rehome the sled dog, but those efforts have been unsuccessful” and the operator follows certain guidelines.

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Contact Peter Fricker: 604 603 5401

Categories
News/Blog

Tell the B.C. government to take action to help sled dogs

Sled dogs continue to suffer due to outdated industry rules

Join us in calling on the B.C. government to update the “Sled Dog Standards of Care” regulation.

A photo from Spirit of the North Kennels, taken by a concerned citizen.

More than 10 years after the infamous 2010 killing of 56 sled dogs in Whistler, sled dogs are still suffering in British Columbia.

In February, the BC SPCA seized 40 dogs in distress from Spirit of the North Kennels, a West Kootenay sled dog operator, citing concerns including inadequate shelter, hypothermia, suspected dehydration and stereotypic behaviour by the dogs, which is a purposeless repetitive action indicating extreme boredom and frustration.

Meanwhile, a new video taken by people concerned for the well-being of the dogs and provided to VHS allegedly shows dogs at another sled dog facility, Blackcomb Dogsled in Whistler, being held in cages and on tethers in a barren yard.

The dogs appear to be showing stereotypic behaviour and can be seen pacing back and forth in cages and repeatedly running in circles around the posts they are tethered to.  

Undercover video shows dogs chained, pacing at Whistler sled dog kennel

TAKE ACTION: https://vancouverhumanesociety.bc.ca/?p=21394More than 10 years after the infamous 2010 killing of 56 sled dogs in Whistler, sled dogs are still…

No dog should have to live like this. B.C.’s Sled Dog Standards of Care Regulation, introduced after the deaths of the 56 sled dogs in Whistler, still allows dogs to be tethered for more than 23 hours a day. The standards also allow sled dog tour companies in B.C. to shoot surplus sled dogs, provided the operator has “made reasonable efforts to rehome the sled dog, but those efforts have been unsuccessful” and the operator follows certain guidelines. 

The provincial government needs to update the regulation to, at the very least, conform to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s 2018 Code of Practice for Canadian Kennel Operations, which states that “Tethering of dogs (i.e., chains or ropes used to tie the dog to an immoveable object such as a stake or building) is not allowable as a method of confining a dog to a primary enclosure, nor as the only means of containment.”   

The Kennel Code also requires that: “Dogs are housed in such a way as to allow them to display natural behaviours, to socialize with or without other species of animals and humans, as appropriate, and to protect public safety.” 

If the B.C. regulation conformed to these requirements of the Kennel Code it would put an end to the tethering of sled dogs by tour companies. 

Please use our simple email tool below to send a message to B.C. Minister of Agriculture, Lana Popham, who is responsible for the Sled Dog Standards of Care RegulationYou can also sign the pledge not to take part in sled dog tours.

Learn more about the sled dog tourism industry.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

GM Canada should stop sponsoring the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

The death of six horses in last year’s Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race may have marked a turning point in public support for the event, with even die-hard chuckwagon fans calling for change.

The key question, however, is whether corporate sponsors of the race will continue to support an event that attracts negative headlines and public outrage virtually every year.

More than 70 horses have died in the event since 1986 and none of the much-publicized safety initiatives, rule changes, and reforms announced by the Stampede has made any difference.

The horses keep on dying.

Yet, on March 19, Calgary will again host the annual GMC Rangeland Derby canvas auction, in which companies will bid to advertise on the tarps covering the chuckwagons that will compete in July’s races at the Stampede.

The bidding companies tend to be local, with many involved in construction or the oil and gas industry. With relatively strong local support for chuckwagon racing, the companies are unlikely to face consumer pressure to distance themselves from the event, despite the annual horse carnage.

But General Motors Canada, which is the title sponsor for the chuckwagon race, is a national and international brand. While associating that brand with the macho “half-mile of hell” might have made sense 30 year ago, does it still?

There have been clear signs that society is growing uncomfortable with the use of animals in entertainment: Ringling Bros. Circus has gone out of business, SeaWorld no longer features orca whale shows, and Canada has banned whale and dolphin captivity. And, according to a 2019 poll by Research Co., a majority of Canadians (59%) are opposed to rodeos.

Meanwhile, General Motors seems to be adopting a more progressive brand. In 2017, the company announced that “General Motors believes the future is all-electric,” ending its century-long relationship with gasoline and diesel. In addition, GM has launched a major “diversity and inclusion” initiative to increase the number of women and minorities it employs. If that’s a brand that’s looking to the future and aiming to broaden its appeal, where do chuckwagon races and dead horses fit?

Yet GM Canada continues to sponsor not only the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race, but also a number of other races organized by the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA). Although media attention has focused on horse deaths at the Stampede, horses have also been killed at WPCA races in several prairie towns, including one in Medicine Hat in 2017, two in Bonnyville in 2012, and four in Grand Prairie in 2009.

Perhaps GM Canada believes the rugged machismo of chuckwagon racing will still resonate with some of its customers, making it worth associating with the event. But, brand values aside, there remains an ethical question: How can the company support an event that every year puts animals at undue risk of injury and death just to amuse a crowd?

While the Calgary Stampede and its supporters have ignored the arguments made by animal advocates against the chuckwagon race for decades, it is harder to ignore independent academic research that examines animal welfare in the race.

A 2017 study of the Stampede’s chuckwagon race by Professor Kevin Young at the University of Calgary concluded that “there are obvious and acknowledged examples of harm/abuse toward the animals involved.”

Professor Young also addressed the Stampede’s program of safety and rule changes, describing it as being “as much about marketing and public image as it is about animal safety, especially in the face of ongoing harm to horses.”

The study simply confirms what facts and common sense tells us: The chuckwagon race kills and injures horses for the sake of entertainment and the Stampede has failed to stop it.

There are good branding and marketing reasons for GM Canada to reconsider its sponsorship of chuckwagon racing, but the ethical case is even stronger.

They should do the right thing and stop supporting this gruesome spectacle.

Categories
Media Release

Most Canadians are against rodeo so why is it being celebrated at the Grey Cup?

Vancouver – The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) is calling on the Canadian Football League (CFL) to cancel a rodeo being held as part of this year’s Grey Cup Festival in Calgary.  The call comes as a new poll shows that a majority of Canadians are opposed to rodeo. The poll, by Research Co., found that almost three-in-five Canadians (59%) are opposed to using animals in rodeos, with only 34 per cent in favour.  Even in Alberta, 49 per cent of residents oppose rodeo, according to the poll.

“The Grey Cup Festival is a national event, supposedly representing Canadian culture and values,” said VHS spokesperson Peter Fricker, “So why is the CFL including a rodeo, which most Canadians oppose?”

Fricker added that the public outrage at the deaths of six horses at this year’s Calgary Stampede and the Stampede’s long history of controversy over animal deaths and cruelty made it hard to understand why the CFL would associate itself with rodeo.

“It seems tone-deaf for the CFL to link Canadian football to rodeo at the league’s premiere event,” he said.

VHS has launched a campaign asking the public to urge the CFL to drop the rodeo from its Grey Cup plans.

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Categories
Opinion Editorial

Why the CFL’s Grey Cup rodeo is a huge marketing blunder

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

The Canadian Football League’s decision to hold a rodeo as part of this year’s Grey Cup festivities is a marketing blunder that not only ignores public concerns about animal welfare but also tarnishes the CFL’s brand by linking it to rodeo’s narrow cultural appeal.

Sure, rodeo is popular in Calgary, this year’s Grey Cup host, but polling shows a majority of Canadians (63%) are opposed to rodeo, with opposition higher in B.C. (66%), Ontario (68%) and Quebec (70%).

Six horses died at this year’s Calgary Stampede, sparking a public outcry and increasing the animal death toll at the Stampede to more than 100 since 1986.

Not only are most Canadians opposed to rodeos, but so are virtually all animal welfare organizations. Humane Canada, which represents most SPCAs and humane societies in the country, has stated that it is “opposed in principle to rodeo and is working towards the ultimate abolition of this activity.” The same is true outside Canada, with the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa taking positions against rodeos. Even the Calgary Humane Society says that it “fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events.”

There is good reason to be concerned about the treatment of rodeo animals. The bucking bulls and horses that are slated to appear at the Grey Cup rodeo will be deliberately subjected to fear and stress to make them perform.  Flank straps will be cinched tight around their hindquarters to induce bucking as they are coerced into the arena with unwanted riders on their backs, using spurs to grip the animals’ hides.

The bucking is a prey animal’s response to a perceived predator attack, as it seeks to dislodge the rider and stop the stress caused by the flank strap. In bulls, aggression is triggered, as can be seen when they sometimes charge bucked-off riders on the ground.

All of this amounts to tormenting animals for the sake of human amusement. It’s the equivalent of poking a stick at a caged tiger or bear at a zoo and calling their reactions entertainment. It’s unethical, uncivilized and un-Canadian.

The CFL might also want to consider how rodeo’s image fits with an iconic Canadian event like the Grey Cup or with the league’s own brand and values.

In recent years, there has been discussion about declining interest in the CFL, especially in the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver markets, where populations are increasingly diverse.  To its credit, the league launched a “Diversity is Strength” campaign in 2017, recognizing Canada’s changing values and demographics.

But the CFL’s efforts to broaden its appeal pale in comparison to the outreach and marketing of the National Basketball Association and, especially, of the Toronto Raptors.  The recent bold decision by the Raptors to launch new line of team-branded hijabs, part of a broader effort to be more inclusive to fans of all cultures, is an instructive example.

But rodeo, which the CFL is now making part of its most high-profile event, has an image that comes nowhere near the modern, diverse Canada that the Raptors have successfully tapped into. To be blunt, rodeo reflects the values of 1950s America more than those of 21st Century Canada.

Rodeo’s image has also been marked by controversy. In 2013, a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair infamously donned a Barack Obama mask, taunting a bull as an announcer on loudspeaker shouted “We’re going to stomp Obama now” to a cheering crowd.  A tourist attending the event likened the atmosphere to a “Klan rally.”

Calf roping at Chilliwack Rodeo

Last year, an anti-rodeo protest in Chilliwack, B.C. was cancelled because of threats of violence and a counter-demonstration by the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group. In 2013, a rodeo fan at B.C.’s Cloverdale Rodeo was caught on video engaging in a racist rant.

In 2015, the Calgary Stampede had to crack down on the sale of Confederate flag belt buckles and licence plates. Disappointed vendors said the Confederate flag design was a “good seller.”

Headlines about such incidents only add to the negative brand values engendered by animal welfare controversies that plague rodeos.

Canadians value compassion, kindness and empathy – toward animals and people. When Canadian figure skater Keegan Messing recently unfurled the flag of Japan to honour his competitor at a medal award ceremony, he made headlines while making his country proud. What other nation celebrates its patriotism by valuing others? That’s the culture Canada’s sports leagues would be wise to incorporate into their brands.

The Canadian Football League, if it really thinks diversity is strength, should follow the NBA’s example and reach out to a broad audience that represents Canada’s future. The last thing it should be doing is associating itself with events that represent our inhumanity to animals and that harken back to a narrow culture that most Canadians have little interest in.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

It’s time to end rodeo cruelty in B.C.

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

Right here in British Columbia, in 2019, animals are being tormented and abused for the entertainment of a crowd.

In July, a rodeo stock contractor was photographed using an electric prod on bulls at the Quesnel Rodeo.  Last year, the same man was caught using a prod at the Chilliwack Fair rodeo.

While the use of electric prods on cattle is not illegal, the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle states: “Electric prods must only be used to assist movement of cattle when animal or human safety is at risk or as a last resort when all other humane alternatives have failed and only when cattle have a clear path to move.”

Calf roping at Chilliwack Rodeo
Calf roping at Chilliwack Rodeo

If you used a prod to apply electric shocks to your dog you would likely face animal cruelty charges. Farm animals do not receive the same protection under the law, leaving bulls, calves and steers subject to abusive, coercive measures in rodeos.

The B.C. Rodeo Association has stated that it does not condone the use of electric cattle prods and that the matter will be dealt with according to its rules and regulations. To date, no penalty for use of the prod has been announced.

In the Quesnel and Chilliwack rodeos, the prods were being used in the bull-riding event: A bucking bull is released into the arena with an unwanted rider on its back to see if the rider can stay on for eight seconds. The rider wears spurs to grip the bull’s hide.  Just before the bull is released a “flank strap” is tightened around its hindquarters, which causes further stress to induce bucking. Electric shocks would only add to the distress the bull is already enduring.

And it’s not just bulls that suffer. Three-month-old calves are chased across the arena, roped off their feet, picked up and slammed to the ground.  In the steer-wrestling event, the animal has its neck twisted until it is bent to the ground.  In team-roping, steers are roped by the head and hind legs, often stretching the animal off the ground. Flank straps and spurs are also used in the bucking horse events.

Rodeo supporters claim that the animals love what they do, but photos of animals at the Chilliwack Fair rodeo clearly show they are in distress while being forced to perform.  No animal would willingly participate in events that subject them to fear, pain and stress.

Virtually all mainstream animal welfare organizations oppose rodeo, including Humane Canada (which represents most Canadian SPCAs and humane societies) and the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Polling shows that 63 per cent of B.C. residents are opposed to rodeo.

Chilliwack Rodeo / Vancouver Humane Society
Calf roping at Chilliwack Rodeo

The Chilliwack Fair rodeo (August 9-11) is the last full rodeo in the Lower Mainland. The Cloverdale Rodeo dropped half its events and the Abbotsford Rodeo closed after campaigns by the Vancouver Humane Society. The society is now campaigning for the Chilliwack Fair to drop the rodeo from its program of events.

As Cirque du Soleil has shown, it isn’t necessary to exploit animals to provide engaging entertainment.  Country fairs, including Chilliwack’s, can be successful without spectacles of animal suffering. Isn’t it time we consigned rodeo to history, along with bear-baiting and cock-fighting?

Isn’t it time we had cruelty-free entertainment, not only in Chilliwack but everywhere?

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Canadian veterinarians should condemn the Calgary Stampede — full stop

Article originally published in CBC News.

Does the Canadian veterinary profession turn a blind eye to animal abuse? Or rather, to certain kinds of animal abuse?

It’s a fair question, given the relative silence from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) on the treatment of animals at the Calgary Stampede — which kicks off Friday — as well as the active participation of some of its members who work as vets in rodeo events.

The CVMA has a commendable policy on animals being used in entertainment, which states that the association “opposes activities, contests, or events that have a high probability of causing injury, distress, or illness.” It also states that “animals should not be forced to perform actions or tasks that result in physical or mental distress or discomfort.”

So why doesn’t the CVMA speak out about the distress, discomfort and risk of injury to rodeo animals at the Stampede, or at the more than 100 professional and semi-professional rodeos in Canada? 

Calf-roping and steer-wrestling

It is self-evident that animals in certain rodeo events are forced to perform actions that result in, at the very least, distress and discomfort. In calf-roping, the animal is chased, roped to a sudden halt, picked up and thrown to the ground before being tied up. It would be preposterous to argue that calves would not feel distress or pain as a result of such treatment.  

Similarly, in steer-wrestling, the animal has its neck twisted to force it to the ground. Again, it is obvious that the animal would be distressed by such action. 

In 2013, when a steer’s neck was broken during the event, the Calgary Stampede’s chief veterinarian explained that the break was “accidental” — but how could it truly be accidental when the injury (which required the steer to be euthanized) was directly because a man deliberately twisted the animal to the ground by its neck? 

In a letter sent by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) back in June, the VHS requested that the CVMA formally denounce such inhumane rodeo events, in accordance with the association’s own animal welfare position statement. In response, the CVMA noted that is working on new position statements that will “convey that CVMA is opposed to any events and activities, in rodeo, or elsewhere, that are inhumane and deliberately cause avoidable harm and suffering.” 

However, this response suggests the CVMA will stop short of a necessary and explicit condemnation of rodeo events, in favour of a statement that is deliberately imprecise. But to make a real impact, the CVMA needs to condemn cruel rodeo events — full stop.

What’s more, rodeo vets are clearly not honouring their veterinary oath, which requires them to swear they will strive to “promote animal health and welfare” and to “prevent and relieve animal suffering.” Instead, they are enabling animal suffering by defending activities that clearly cause animals distress and risk of injury – all for the sake of mere entertainment. 

Serving two masters

Veterinarians are trusted by Canadians, and strong opposition from the CVMA would have some real clout in the public debate over animal cruelty at rodeos. Many polls show veterinarians are among the most trusted professionals in Canada, which makes sense: who wouldn’t admire and trust people who devote their lives to keeping our pets happy and healthy?

But the veterinary profession is not just about ensuring puppies and kittens stay bright-eyed and playful. They also help ensure Canadians have meat on their tables. Except for ethical vegetarians and vegans, most people wouldn’t object to that. Farmers depend on vets to keep herds and flocks healthy and productive. But where was the profession when factory farming, with its cruel sow stalls and battery cages for laying hens, were introduced?

The problem is that the veterinary profession serves two masters: clients and animals. If the client is a factory farm or a rodeo, the animals will always come second. It can be argued that the demands of modern livestock production leave vets little choice and they do their ethical best inside a morally flawed system. But what possible excuse could there be for a vet to support the abuse of animals to amuse a crowd of rodeo fans? Vets attending rodeos should make clear they are not there to support the event, but are adhering to their oath to prevent suffering.

The CVMA has long been aware of this conflict of interest that underlies its silence on issues like animal abuse at rodeos. Writing in the Canadian Veterinary Journal in 2012, Dr. Patricia Turner, then-chair of the CVMA’s animal welfare committee, stated:  “Our duties to the animals we care for may often be in conflict with the desires of our clients and employers, or the realities of financial solvency. For veterinarians to become leaders in the field of animal welfare, we must recognize ongoing societal changes in how animals are valued and actively engage in discussions regarding animal use and care by society.”

The CVMA needs to show the courage of its convictions and speak out against the unnecessary suffering of animals at the Calgary Stampede, as well as all the other rodeos that make a mockery of its high-minded principles.

Categories
animal welfare Captivity compassion cruelty Cruelty-free ethics News/Blog Promoted wildlife zoo

The Vancouver Aquarium needs a new vision

News that the Vancouver Aquarium is suing the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Park Board over the 2017 cetacean ban is a sad reminder that the aquarium remains out of step with changes in public attitudes and has no vision for the future that could reflect those changes.

With federal legislation banning cetacean captivity now the law of the land, the aquariums’s lawsuit seems particularly ill-timed and contrary to the spirit of the times.  It’s even more peculiar given that the aquarium itself said in 2018 that it would no longer keep whales and dolphins.

Still in the business of cetacean captivity

While the issue of cetacean captivity is largely settled, there remains much to be concerned about regarding the aquarium and its future direction.

First, the revelation that Ontario’s controversial Marineland amusement park is transferring two beluga whales owned by the Vancouver Aquarium to a facility in Valencia, Spain (which the aquarium manages), clearly demonstrates that it is still in the businesses of cetacean captivity.  They’re just not doing it in Stanley Park. The aquarium is also believed to own belugas kept at other facilities in the U.S. (Two belugas owned by the aquarium died at the notorious SeaWorld in 2015.)

The Valencia facility, L’Oceanogràfic, is the largest complex of its type in Europe and reportedly keeps 45,000 animals of 500 different species including fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Its dolphinarium features two shows a day, with trained dolphins performing tricks for a large crowd. It’s clearly a place of entertainment.  While L’Oceanogràfic is a popular attraction it is not hard to find visitor reviews that are critical of animal welfare at the complex.

Facilities like Marineland, SeaWorld and L’Oceanogràfic represent everything that the Vancouver Aquarium should be moving away from. While the aquarium has done some rebranding, calling itself part of Ocean Wise, a “worldwide conservation organization” it remains primarily a place of entertainment, not conservation.

Restraints on speaking out against threats to marine life 

One of the most pressing marine conservation issues in B.C. is the potential extinction of B.C.’s Southern Resident killer whales.  The National Energy Board has admitted that the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline project will likely “cause significant adverse environmental effects on the Southern resident killer whale and on Indigenous cultural use associated with the Southern Resident killer whale.”  Conservation groups like the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have opposed the pipeline for this reason.  Yet, the Vancouver Aquarium’s voice is rarely heard in the pipeline debate.

Some fear that the aquarium’s reticence on such issues may be due to its links to business, especially to resource extraction industries. Mining company Teck donated $12.5 million to the aquarium in 2012 and one of its galleries is named for the company.  The Vancouver Board of Trade supported the aquarium in its fight to keep cetaceans in captivity, obviously cognizant of the tourist dollars the aquarium brings in. There is clearly a potential for a conflict of interest that would keep the aquarium out of important debates that are relevant to a genuine conservation role.

A drift toward becoming a zoo?

Another concern is the aquarium’s apparent “mission creep” toward becoming a zoo. It’s collection of 58,000 animals includes sloths, penguins, monkeys, snakes and macaws, which are hardly aquatic species. It would be unfortunate if this trend continued and the menagerie grew just to provide an additional attraction.

The Vancouver Aquarium, like all zoos and aquariums, justifies putting animals on display by claiming that they serve to educate and inspire people to value wildlife.  Yet there is little evidence to show that is the case.  There is, however, research to the contrary, as Zoocheck executive director Rob Laidlaw has stated: “There have been a number of studies examining how long zoo visitors look at animals. The results show that for some animals, particularly if they are not active, observation times can vary from about eight seconds to 90 seconds. There’s not much that can be learned about an animal in that length of time.”

Need for transparency

There is also a need for the aquarium to show greater transparency in its operations if it seeks to build public trust, especially as a conservation organization.  Its website states:

“Aquarium animals come to us from many places and in many different ways. Many animals arrive at the Aquarium as part of an exchange program with other large aquariums, zoos and universities. Most of the tropical fish are flown to the Aquarium from dealers around the world. The Aquarium tries to buy fish from sustainable fisheries and conservation-based associations, and only purchases from dealers who collect fish with nets, and not chemicals or explosives.

“Aquarium divers have permits to collect marine invertebrates including octopuses, sea stars, sea anemones and species of fish. Other collectors walk out from the beach with seine nets to gather local invertebrates and fishes. Many animals are also born into our care. Once in the Aquarium, animals normally live for many years.”

Who are these “dealers”?  How reputable are they and are they also involved in the exotic pet trade, which has damaged wildlife populations.  And there is the basic ethical question about removing animals from their natural habitat just to put them on public display. Who benefits? Certainly not the animals.

The aquarium should be transparent about where all its animals come from and how they are obtained. It should also be open about what happens to them after they become part of the collection. How many die prematurely?  Does the aquarium keep data on survival rates?

Opportunity for genuine change and new vision

The Vancouver Aquarium has an opportunity to do more than rebrand itself with name changes and new websites. But it needs to resolve the conflict between being a tourist attraction and a genuine conservation organization. 

There are ways forward. Some aquariums are moving away from making captive wildlife their star attractions. The Aquarium of the Pacific in California is opening a multi-million dollar “immersive theatre” that features “wind, fog, scent and vibrating seats to storms playing out on a massive, two-story-tall screen.” The theatre is part of a new “Pacific Visions” wing designed to “explore pressing environmental issues and suggest alternative pathways to a sustainable future.”

Hawaii’s Maui Ocean Centre, which has no captive cetaceans recently launched a digital “Humpbacks of Hawaii” exhibit using the integration of 4k imagery, 3D active glasses and a 7.1 surround sound system. The centre says the exhibit “transports guests deep into the ocean, giving them an inside look into the complex and vibrant lives of Maui’s humpback whales, and allowing them to forge new connections with one of nature’s greatest marvels.”

The aquarium could develop a vision for the future that is based on genuine education and conservation. It could employ the latest technology to make learning about marine life exciting and compelling.  It could use its voice to contribute to debates about real threats to B.C.’s coastal waters.

It could also invest in research about some of the big questions surrounding marine life. One of most recent and most profound of these has been the question of fish sentience.  The latest research shows that, contrary to previous perceptions, fish feel pain.  What are the implications of this?  The Vancouver Aquarium could be at the forefront of discussions about such big issues.

And why doesn’t the aquarium explore cooperation with the U.S.-based Whale Sanctuary Project, which has considered the B.C. coast as a possible a site for a sanctuary? There would be huge public support for the aquarium’s involvement.

It’s time the Vancouver Aquarium left the entertainment industry behind and became something much more valuable: A beacon to help guide us through the challenges that face our seas and a champion of the precious marine life they contain.  That is what Vancouver – and the world – needs, not just another place to see captive animals living out their lives in tanks.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

What the internet weeping over death of NASA robot tells us about empathy

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

On February 13th, 2019 NASA confirmed the death of the Opportunity rover. Its last image a dark static greyscape, the last view of the sandstorm that destroyed the rover, and its last message “my battery is low and it is getting dark.”

And the Internet wept.

There has been an outpouring of sympathy at “the loss of Opportunity” (the most 2019 phrase thus far), but it’s not hard to see why. Designed for a 90-day mission, the rover explored for 15 years, outliving its sibling rover, Spirit, by years.

It was programmed to know its own birthday and it sang to itself every year to commemorate the occasion. It was basically a real life Wall-E. And it lived its life like many of us, terribly online. On Twitter, Opportunity and Spirit shared the @MarsRovers handle, and have amassed over 475k followers. Opportunity had an identity.

“This is a hard day,” said project manager John Callas. “Even though it’s a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s still very hard and very poignant, but we had to do that… It comes time to say goodbye.”

NASA lost communication with the rover after a sandstorm, declaring the mission, which has indicated that Mars once had water capable of sustaining microbial life, complete.

The online response to the “death” of Opportunity shows clearly if nothing else how essential compassion is to the human condition. We know that a robot in outer space isn’t actually celebrating its birthday, or even really dying. But it’s sad. We feel for the robot.

That isn’t to say sympathy for a dying robot is a bad thing. I used to research and teach political and ethical theory (among other things), and as an ethicist, I take compassion to be a moral virtue and one of the best qualities a human being can have. The philosopher in me is excited for the ethical considerations that will have to come about as a result of more and more complex artificial intelligences as machines and AI continue to become more and more a part of our lives. Our capacity to care, for other humans, for non-human animals, even for fictional characters and objects with identities, tells us something incredible about human beings.

The entertainment industry has played on this for years — robots, mutants, animal-human hybrids, and aliens can all be protagonists or love interests and no one bats an eye. You only have to name a pencil in front of a group of students and suddenly if you snap it you’re destroying an individual, not a mere object.

Animals are individuals. Not exactly like us, but they are individuated in similar ways. Depending on the species, some individuals will be more curious, social, food-motivated, dominant, playful, or any number of other “personality” (animality?) traits that mark individuals within that species.

It makes sense that people sympathize more with an individual like Opportunity, just as they did with Tilikum, the orca profiled in the film Blackfish which highlighted the keeping of cetaceans at Sea World and other marine parks. The film brought to light the ethical issue of keeping highly intelligent, social creatures in environments that the best science tells us is inadequate.

I had the fortune of seeing a similarly eye-opening film in Ottawa a few years ago. Sled Dogs examines some of the issues surrounding the Iditarod dog sled race and the use of sled dogs in tourism and entertainment, including a large scale cull of dogs that took place in British Columbia. It is heartbreaking to see the lives of these creatures. In this year’s Yukon Quest, considered by many to be more difficult and dangerous than the more famous Iditarod, a dog named Joker has died. Last year a dog named Boppy died when he asphyxiated on his own vomit which froze in his throat. A dog has died or had to be euthanized every year for the last ten years of the Yukon Quest. Boppy’s owner had a dog die in a previous race, and was once disqualified based on the condition of his dog team.

The environmental conditions these dogs were in at the time of their death, white, grey, getting darker, if we could capture that image, it may not be unlike the last photo from Opportunity.

Dogs are not meant to run 1600km in some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet, and they certainly don’t *want* to. They are not capable of the kinds of complex decision making required for that. Dogs, regardless of breed, want to be happy and like us, that comes in a variety of ways. Exercise is definitely one of them, and all dogs need some level of physical activity to be healthy and happy.

Certainly some dogs enjoy the snow and the cold, I can remember vividly trying to bring a Malamute mix in at the shelter I managed in St. John’s. It was a literal blizzard and he had curled up and gone to sleep outside. I had to pick him up to get him in for the night.

But no dog wants to die, and since they aren’t capable of making complex choices in their own best interests, we owe it to them to advocate on their behalf. If we can empathize with a robot dying alone on Mars, we have to be able to empathize with Joker dying in the cold, in pain and confused.

Non-human animals do not experience time the same way we do since they don’t plan for the future or construct a narrative identity through memories of the past. What they “know” in any meaningful sense of the term is what they are immediately and directly experiencing through their senses. They react based on previous experience as well as individual disposition, something like what we experience as memory and identity. The complexity of this basic experience varies depending on the animal, but remains essentially the same.

This means that in moments of trauma and stress, dogs, cats, cows, pigs, and a lot of other animals, “know” only that trauma. A dog can’t rationalize its final moments by telling itself it’s a hero. It doesn’t grasp the concept of death in the way we do, it may not “know” it’s dying in the same way we do, but in that moment that’s all it thinks it will ever experience. Every moment is forever.

We care a lot about our pets. Some care passionately about wildlife, and others care tremendously for the animals who suffer as part of our agriculture system. We even care about cartoons and brands and robots on Mars. In a world where we have rules around infrastructure to preserve the dignity and integrity of views and scenery, let’s try to empathize more with those who depend on our care the most, and always strive to do them justice. Like most things, we can always do better.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Let’s put an end to events that torment animals

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

Most people care about how kittens and puppies are treated, but how many people have empathy for a 2,000-pound bucking bull?

The rodeo and bull-riding industries say bulls are mean and “ornery” and, of course, dangerous. They also call the bulls “athletes” — as though bulls have chosen a career in sports in the same way a football player might. They say bulls are just doing what they love to do.

The truth, however, is a different story. Bull-riding events depend on unnatural, coercive and inhumane treatment of bulls.

First, the bulls are bred to buck — a fact bull-riding promoters commonly use to defend the “sport.” But this only means that bulls are bred to have a genetic predisposition to buck. And it doesn’t mean the animal will enjoy bucking. It’s equivalent to breeding dogs for aggression or fear or to have a sensitivity to some form of negative stimulus.

In bull-riding there’s plenty of negative stimulus to make the animal buck. It has an unwanted rider on its back, who is wearing spurs that grip the bull’s hide. Just before the bull is released into the arena a “flank strap” is tightened around its hindquarters, which further induces bucking.

The flank strap is much debated, with rodeo supporters arguing that it’s just a “signal” to the bull to start bucking or that it just makes the bull buck harder. At most, they say, it’s a mild irritant. In fact, just like the unwanted rider and the spurs, the flank strap is causing the bull distress. Consequently, it enters the arena bucking wildly. It wouldn’t behave so otherwise.

The B.C. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act states that: “A person responsible for an animal must not cause or permit the animal to be, or to continue to be, in distress.” However, livestock are effectively exempted from the act, if “the distress results from an activity that is carried out in accordance with reasonable and generally accepted practices of animal management that apply to the activity in which the person is engaged … ” 

The drafters of the act presumably had in mind agricultural practices such as branding cattle, which would be illegal if applied to dogs or cats. Until challenged in court, it seems rodeo events like bull-riding will qualify for the same exemption, despite having no agricultural purpose. Sadly, this means the bulls, calves and steers in rodeos don’t get the same legal protection from abuse as other animals.

Again, many will say: why care about bulls? They’re just livestock. Contrast this lack of public empathy with, say, captive whales or dolphins. For years, animal advocates and thousands of concerned citizens have rightly fought to end the keeping of cetaceans in marine parks and aquariums because it’s inhumane to hold them in tanks. The debate between pro and anti-captivity supporters has been fierce, with intense media attention about the issue.

But imagine if dolphin trainers applied deliberately stressful, physical methods — the equivalent of spurs and flank straps — to make the dolphins perform. There would be no debate. No civilized person would stand for it.

Some will argue: yes, but cetaceans are intelligent, beautiful and graceful, bulls not so much. But should we deny compassion and empathy to animals that are not as charismatic as others? As Jeremy Bentham reminded us, the only question that should matter is “can they suffer?”

On Sept. 15, Abbotsford’s Exhibition Park will host what has been billed as an “extreme-rodeo” event, featuring bull-riding, “extreme freestyle bullfighting” and “Mexican bull poker,” all of which involve stressing bulls to make them perform. Animal advocates are calling on Abbotsford city council, which owns the venue, to cancel the event.

The Chilliwack Fair rodeo (Aug. 10-12) also features bull-riding, along with controversial events such as calf-roping and steer-wrestling, which animal advocates are campaigning against.

All animals deserve our empathy and respect, even the strong and powerful.  Isn’t it time we abolished events that depend on the taunting and tormenting of animals to entertain us? The cities of Abbotsford and Chilliwack could make a bold stand for compassion and kindness toward animals by doing just that.