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Merlin Entertainment's Beluga "Sanctuary" Raises Eyebrows

When a UK-based amusement park group, with ties to an animal rights extremist group, bought a Chinese marine mammal facility, it announced its plans to send two female beluga whales to a "sanctuary" in Iceland.

Xiao Bai and Xiao Hui are the two Changfeng belugas in question. (Photo by Merlin Entertainment)

In 2012, Merlin Entertainment, a company that specializes in family-oriented business venues like SeaLife Center, LEGOLAND, and Alton Towers, bought Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. Five years later, the company announces that it was going to team up with the anti-zoo group Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), to transport Changfeng's two female belugas from China to Iceland, where they would live in a sea pen next year. The sea pen, which is being advertised by Merlin as "the world's first beluga sanctuary," has been raising a lot of eyebrows among the marine zoological community in regards to both the welfare of the animals in question, and the hypocrisy of animal rights extremists.

But first, let's talk about that journey to Iceland.

Xiao Bai and Xiao Hui, the two Changfeng belugas in question, are expected to live in a sea pen that just happens to be in the very same location where an orca named Keiko lived 21 years before. According to Mark Simmons, author of the book Killing Keiko, the location was proven to be a bad spot to setup a sea pen in the first place. This was due to the fact that poor weather conditions made it nearly impossible to access the pen in order to care for Keiko for several days. The fact that Merlin chose a bad location to setup a "sanctuary" in the first place should be an indication that animal welfare is not the top priority in its book.

Once the animals begin to make the journey to Iceland, it's going to end up being a 5,592-mile transfer by plane before they would even end up arriving at the Westland Islands. From there, Xiao Bai and Xiao Hui would be transported by land, and finally arrive at the pen by ferry. Ironically, when Whale and Dolphin Conservation first opposed Georgia Aquarium's efforts to import beluga whales from Russia to the United States, it claimed it was because the nature of transporting the animals would result in the animals getting "stressed" out and would put them at risk of developing diseases down the road. This is where the hypocrisy comes in on its part, because here you have this anti-zoo group claiming that transporting animals from one facility to another is "wrong," but it seems to have no issue with its own efforts of stressing out two animals that just happen to be living under its own care.

Concerns Over Whale Welfare

Although there have been a number of reports about beluga whales straying into waters off of Iceland, Nova Scotia, New England, Great Britain, and in the Baltic Sea, belugas are not normally found in Icelandic waters. As a result, Merlin Entertainment's introduction of beluga whales into the Icelandic coast, via, sanctuary, could result in endangering the local fauna and disrupt both regional food chains and the natural balance that is part of Iceland's marine ecosystem. When transporting non-native wildlife to a region, wildlife conservation scientists always make every effort to avoid anything that could result in disrupting a foreign ecosystem, especially when it comes to a species that would be deemed as "invasive" to that area. The European Union has a number of laws and regulations that would prevent the spread of invasive species, but Iceland is not considered to be a member of the EU, and so, they are not governed by these environmental laws. In addition, both Xiao Bai and Xiao Hui were collected from Russian waters, not Icelandic.

Meanwhile, back in Shanghai, Jun Jun, a third female beluga who was under Merlin Entertainment's care, died last June from complications relating to a cerebral hemorrhage. It should also be kept in mind that out in the wild, female belugas do not form any bachelorette groups, which in the long run would not benefit their well-being. In fact, both of these female belugas are going to be required to have a male companion at the "sanctuary" in order for all of their needs to be met, which on the long run would enable them to breed in the future. This is nothing more than just an indication that the beluga's transfers to the "sanctuary" would possibly result in a poor environment for them.

Another concern in regards to the welfare of Xiao Bai and Xiao Hui is the fact that they have spent several years in the care of professional animal care specialists who were trained in the husbandry and care of belugas and other marine mammals, only to end up in the care of those who do not have expertise in animal care. To be honest, if Merlin Entertainment truly had the welfare of those animals in mind, they could have made arrangements with another facility that housed belugas either in North America or in Europe to provide a forever home for them. Instead, they chose to cave into the demands of animal rights extremists by sending them to a sea pen that may not be able to meet all of their basic needs.

Iceland's Lack of Whale Conservation Laws

There is an obvious reason as to why Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Merlin Entertainment chose Iceland as their place to house beluga whales. It's because Iceland itself lacks its very own conservation laws regarding the protection of cetacean species in its waters. According to Whale and Dolphin's own website, Iceland does not recognize the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling and continues to kill and export minke whales and endangered fin whales for domestic demands and as offers to tourists. Currently, it is estimated that about 35,000 whales have been killed by Icelandic whalers since the 19th century. While it's possible for one to fight against the very few laws in Iceland that are aimed at protecting the local marine life, to use this sanctuary as a way to use these problems for their own purpose is doing nothing more than just creating a double standard.

What about modern facilities?

At modern and accredited facilities like SeaWorld, beluga whales are allowed to thrive and live in healthy and proper social environments. These animals have regular routines that are established by professional animal care specialists and trainers that enable them to live comfortably, thrive, and be stimulated through environmental enrichment devices that enable them to display any behavior that they would often display out in the wild. These animals also help researchers better understand the species as a whole, and find better ways to care for them in human care.

The Whale Dolphin Conservation

What Whale Dolphin Conservation is doing is just nothing more than just selling lies to the public about zoos and aquariums that display marine mammals in order to seek monetary gain. They have targeted SeaWorld, a number of marine mammal facilities in Germany and Spain, and have even used bribing as a method to get bans against the keeping of cetaceans in human care in place. Xiao Bai and Xiao Hui have just become the victims of an ideology that WDC shares with Merlin Entertainment since animal rights extremists have little to no expertise in animal care.

It would do more harm to them than any good and if there really is anything that Keiko's rehabilitation taught the world in regards to putting animals in activist-owned sanctuaries, in the mind of the movement, ideology and money is a driving force for the animal rights movement rather than actual animal welfare.

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