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Animal welfare groups criticize Vancouver Aquarium after second beluga whale death

A beluga whale is seen during a show at the Vancouver Aquarium on March 5, 2015.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver Aquarium is facing criticism from animal welfare groups after the second death of a beluga whale at the facility in just under two weeks.

The beluga called Aurora died late Friday evening after struggling with an unknown illness that became apparent immediately following the death of her offspring Qila 10 days earlier.

The 30-year-old whale was showing symptoms of abdominal cramping, loss of appetite and lethargy but earlier in the day Friday, veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena said there were signs Aurora was improving.

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A statement from the Vancouver Aquarium said the marine mammal care team had worked relentlessly to treat the whale and are heartbroken by her death.

Animal welfare groups have responded to news of the death saying it's time the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity is reviewed.

The non-profit ecology organization Lifeforce released a statement saying the capture of whales should be banned, and the Vancouver Humane Society has called for an end to holding any cetaceans in captivity.

Humane society communications director Peter Fricker says whales should be able to enjoy the freedom of the open ocean and keeping marine mammals in tanks is unnatural and cruel.

Aurora had lived at the aquarium since 1990. Her offspring Qila was the first beluga to be born in captivity in Canada in 1995.

The Vancouver Aquarium said in a statement Friday that in keeping the whales at the facility, they were able to inspire generations of visitors and contributed to a number of studies on the physiology and hearing abilities of belugas.

However, Fricker said in an interview that he believes the amount of research conducted by the aquarium doesn't justify keeping the animals in captivity, and that there is no evidence having animals on display improves the public's knowledge about wildlife.

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"Most people just go and look at the animals, and obviously they're tremendously charismatic, but that doesn't mean you learn anything about the species and there is no research that we're aware of that they have any educational value in terms of being put on display," he said.

Aurora was the last beluga being held at the Vancouver Aquarium. The facility's five other belugas are living at various locations around the United States while plans for expanding the Stanley Park facility, including doubling the surface area of the beluga tank, are under way.

Fricker said the humane society is urging the aquarium to reconsider the decision to expand the facility and instead phase out their cetacean program.

"They should focus on what they're really good at which is rescue, rehabilitation and release," he said.

University of British Columbia marine mammal researcher Andrew Trites said while the sudden death of the whales is tragic, it is rare that animals live to be their oldest possible age and both Aurora and Qila "beat the odds" in terms of the lifespan they achieved.

"We can point to animals in the wild living to be in their 50s and 60s but that number is often translated to mean all whales live to be in their 50s and 60s, and the reality is that it's probably less than one per cent that live to be that old," he said. "Most animals die young whether they're in the wild or in captivity."

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Trites said what is more concerning is the fact that researchers and veterinarians have been unable to identify the illness that led to the belugas' demise, and it may signal a new condition or disease has developed.

The Vancouver Aquarium said officials would not be providing comment Saturday while a necropsy on Aurora is performed, and expected more details to be released on Sunday.

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