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Sure we are disappointed, but….

Virgin broke its news about ‘The Pledge’ today, after months of consultation with a diverse group of stakeholders from inside and outside the captivity industry, including WDC and other animal welfare and conservation organizations. Initially announced on February 27, 2014, Virgin’s pledge was in response to the growing and undeniable public conversation and concern surrounding whales and dolphins in captivity, instigated arguably by decades of dedicated campaigning against this practice, the firestorm ignited by the documentaries The Cove and Blackfish, and was publicized just days after the targeted and irreverent campaign video launched by WDC.

The words of the pledge were simple: Richard Branson forecasted that Virgin would no longer do business with suppliers that continue to take whales and dolphins (cetaceans) from the wild. This seems like a fairly straightforward proposition that sends a clear message to the marketplace that it is no longer acceptable to take whales and dolphins from the wild for any reason. However, in order to ‘operationalize’ this pledge and explore the complexities surrounding the issue of whales and dolphins in captivity, Virgin launched a stakeholder process that culminated in a meeting in Miami in early June  in order to gather information concerning captive breeding, rescue and rehabilitation, sanctuaries, and larger ocean conservation and education issues. Just a few months later, Virgin has drawn its line in the sand and finalized the pledge.

What does Virgin’s final pledge look like? In a statement released today Virgin’s line in the sand is February 14, 2014, meaning a pledging facility cannot have acquired cetaceans from the wild from that point forward, or receive cetaceans that were captured from the wild on or after that date. Exceptions will be made for cetaceans that need to be relocated for emergency, conservation or rehabilitation and rescue purposes. In addition, the pledge contains no provisions against captive breeding, nor does it prevent facilities from importing captive-born dolphins from other facilities that may still capture from the wild, or trading in dolphins captured from the wild before the February 14th deadline,  thereby reducing the potential reach and influence of the pledge.

Are we disappointed? Sure. We had just two days to spend with the Virgin team in Miami, which admittedly is not nearly enough time to go through all of the scientific evidence, or the moral and ethical arguments, that reveal just how devastating captivity is to individual whales and dolphins, as well as wild populations. Although we see Virgin’s efforts as progress, we wanted and expected a bigger leap forward in absolute and progressive leadership on this issue. We wanted Virgin to reach outside its comfort zone and truly challenge its suppliers and, in turn, the marketplace, with decisions that would immediately change the face of the captivity industry, including prohibitions on captive breeding, trade with facilities that still acquire from the wild, and import of wild-captured dolphins currently in captivity no matter when they were acquired. And really, we truly wanted Virgin, and other tour providers, to stop selling trips to SeaWorld and other holiday destinations that profit from the confinement of whales and dolphins.

Furthermore, it appears that stakeholder discussions surrounding the release of cetaceans to the wild need to be clarified and explored further, as the Virgin statement references the lack of scientific support for such efforts because of welfare concerns. WDC is not advocating for release in all circumstances, nor to the detriment of individuals or potentially wild populations that could be impacted by inappropriate release of formerly captive, or especially captive-born, whales and dolphins. We are seeking, like many others, the development of alternative and more natural environments, such as sanctuaries, that improve the quality of life for those individuals that will need permanent long-term care as captive-breeding is halted and captivity phased out, and for those individuals that may be candidates for release. Release is sometimes possible, and successful releases have occurred with the support of scientists and advocates alike. Whether dolphins and whales should be released back into the wild is a case-by-case evaluation and requires very deliberate consideration of the individuals to be released, their personal history and circumstances, and the local environment where this might occur.

We do, however, welcome and appreciate any incremental progress forward in tackling the complex lifecycle of captivity. In fact, if we could choose an initial significant step forward on the path to ending the devastating cycle of supply and demand that feeds the captive industry, it would be this first step of shutting down the capture of whales and dolphins from the wild. If acquisition from the wild no longer occurs, then facilities are forced to rely upon their existing collections that would slowly atrophy as breeding programs fail to sustain them.

On the other side of our disappointment is the acknowledgement that the beginning of change has to start somewhere. We remain positive about ongoing dialogue with Virgin and the impact of increasing public engagement and evolving consumer demand: facilities may choose to stop breeding voluntarily; facilities may show their own leadership by ending their shows and creating alternative displays that do not rely on live whales or dolphins; or they may even invest in the development of sanctuary environments. These things are indeed already happening, and it is through progressive leadership within the captivity industry itself, whether self-propelled, forced through public referendum, or incentivized through the marketplace.

I think it is fair to say that the entire burden doesn’t fall on Virgin, and we can and will continue to encourage progressive leadership and reform of the captivity industry in all of its forms as new directions fledge and mature until they eventually subsume a dying and increasingly archaic practice. Can Virgin’s initial leadership on this issue serve as an instigator for even greater action by other players in the tourism market, such as British Airways–a primary market competitor of Virgin–or others such as TUI, Thomas Cook, or Cosmos?

On its face, what does this pledge do? Something significant–it challenges the current culture embedded within the zoo and aquarium industry that it is acceptable to extract whales and dolphins from their natural homes and families in the wild and confine and manipulate them for our purposes, however justifiable we might think those purposes are. It challenges what is considered ethical within the captivity industry—capturing whales and dolphins from the wild—calls it out and labels it as an unethical practice. There really are no humane methods to capture whales and dolphins, and with real conservation implications resulting from the extraction of individuals from wild populations, it is no longer acceptable to acquire them from the wild. Virgin, in considering the science, has made an ethical statement.

But what about the other areas of leadership Virgin can still show? Richard Branson is after all, an Ocean Elder, and the clout, gravitas, and obligation associated with this position is not one that Sir Richard can easily dismiss or discount. I am certain that his ethical positions will guide Virgin’s continuing involvement in this and other pressing conservation and welfare issues facing whales and dolphins. Perhaps with this initial positive step forward, consumer preferences can be aligned with market forces–both nudged in the right direction and gaining the momentum required to not just challenge, but reform, the culture of captivity.

This is a question that we hope can be defined by further action, and progress, on the issue of whales and dolphins in captivity. There is still plenty of work to do, and room for others to catch up and take the lead in the marketplace. It is also up to each of us, where we must confront our individual choices that might include buying a ticket to any zoo, aquarium, or dolphinarium that holds whales and dolphins in captivity.

We still wish Virgin had done more. But perhaps, in time, they will broaden their pledge and reveal even more leadership. The challenges facing whales and dolphins in captivity and in the wild are not going away, and we continue to look forward to what a brighter and more humane future for whales and dolphins might look like as the dialogue, and action, continues.