Canada’s “Free Willy” Bill on Whale and Dolphin Captivity By Debbie Lee

When the film “Free Willy” played in cinemas in 1993, animal lovers celebrated the scene where Willy, an orca long held in captivity, finally broke free. This captivating, uplifting climax of the film saw Willy leaping through the water, through the air, and over his young human friend as he shouted “Go Willy!” After a lifetime of being captive in a small tank, forced to entertain the public day in, day out, this magnificent whale was finally free.

Soon, whales – and dolphins and porpoises – in Canada may enjoy the same freedom as Willy. On June 10, 2019, Canada’s House of Commons passed a bill to make it illegal to hold whales, dolphins, and porpoises in captivity. Although the bill was already approved by the Senate in 2015, it has to return there to gain ‘royal assent’. Despite the formalities still to come, the bill is, happily, expected to pass.

The aim of what’s nicknamed the Free Willy bill is to stop these animals from being held in marine parks for public entertainment and revenue purposes. Subsection (4) of the bill states:

Everyone commits an offence who promotes, arranges, conducts, assists in, receives money for, or takes part in any meeting, competition, exhibition, pastime, practice, display or event at or in the course of which captive cetaceans are used for performance for entertainment purposes.

As discussed by the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans in 2017, “a licence authorizing the capture of a cetacean for public display purposes has not been issued since the early 1990s.” Yet it is necessary to solidify this trend, of turning away from captivity of cetaceans, in law.

The animals highlighted in this bill are extraordinarily intelligent, and the more research that is done into their aptitude, the more horrifying captivity appears. Also, the solitude of captivity has been shown to cause behavioural problems. Orcas, for example, remain with their family in pods for most of their lives. Keeping them in small tanks causes distress as it’s not their natural way of living in the wild.

It’s logical that this sort of law is gaining real traction in Canada: the country has the longest coastline in the world, and one of its main tourist attractions is whale-watching.

If the bill succeeds, the whales and dolphins currently in captivity in Canada will unfortunately remain where they are – some have been born in captivity, and some have been held for so long that overall they would not survive back in the wild. However, zoos and parks will not be able to replace any whales and dolphins thereafter. Not complying with the passing of the new law, could mean a fine of up to 200,000 Canadian dollars (up to US$150,000).

The bill has made provision to amend the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA) to stop any whales and dolphins being imported or exported. The bill has also made provision to amend the Fisheries Act to ensure that capture will be banned. No breeding in captivity will be permitted under the Criminal Code. But some of these animals will still be kept in captivity: Any instances where rescuing or rehabilitating one of these creatures is felt necessary will be permitted. Also, the bill will allow for applications of permits for scientific research on whales and dolphins.

The bill was initially introduced by Senator Wilfred Moore in Canada in 2015. It was eventually opposed, but now, introduced again by members of Parliament, it is considered to reflect the will of the everyday people across Canada. Truly, the sentiment is not felt by Canadians alone. The opposition to captivity of whales and dolphins has risen in recent years, especially since the documentary “Blackfish” in 2013, the true story of an orca whale in captivity in SeaWorld. Such public opposition led SeaWorld to announce in 2016 that orcas would no longer be performing in their shows. It’s a start, and hopefully Canada’s bill will inspire other countries to follow suit.

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