The decision by the National Aquarium in Baltimore to send its surviving beluga whales to another fish tank in the wake of a beluga death there on Dec. 23 was called an admission of guilt yesterday by animal rights groups.
"I think it says that they know what they're doing with these animals is wrong, that keeping them in captivity is wrong," said Logan Cockey, a member of the Maryland Forum for Animals, which has staged frequent protests at the popular Inner Harbor attraction. "They can't expect to survive their normal life span in a captive setting."
Denying the charge, Aquarium officials said they are simply proceeding with a commitment to involve a pair of nearly mature female beluga in a breeding program.
Beluga breeding is not possible at the $35 million Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 because there are no male beluga live there.
A 10-year-old beluga named Anore died Dec. 23 after one of several dolphins the whales were swimming with turned on the fTC larger animal and rammed her with its nose, breaking several of Anore's ribs and puncturing her heart. In 1989, a beluga named Illamar died at the Aquarium of a bacterial infection.
After Anore died, the Aquarium immediately stopped putting dolphins and whales together.
The Aquarium does not know where or when Kia and Sikku will move, a spokesman said yesterday. They will be on temporary loan to a facility approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, he said.
If the beluga bear calves, they and their offspring could be brought backto Baltimore, the spokesman said.
"This wasn't an easy decision," said Chris Andrews, director of husbandry at the Aquarium.
"It's always been our intention that our beluga would become part of a breeding program in North America, and the best way our animals could become part of that program would be to send them on temporary breeding loan."
The Aquarium says its programs educate the public to the need to protect marine mammals and keep their natural habitats free of pollution and certain fishing nets in which they become entangled and die.
The animal rights activists, a coalition of several groups, say their protests and public disruptions of programs at the Aquarium educate the public to the danger of keeping marine mammals in captivity.
Both the activists and the Aquarium officials say they are environmentalists, and a compromise has eluded them.
"I hope the next facility doesn't make the same mistakes that the Baltimore Aquarium did, but the fact remains that there are inherent problems with keeping marine mammals in captivity," said Steven Simmons, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Transferring the whales probably won't do much to help the whales."
Mr. Andrews said, "Let's not forget that the wild is not some kind of paradise where all of these animals live forever and swim off into the sunset.
"We leave a message with [spectators] for the need to preserve the marine environment. We consider ourselves to be environmental activists as much as anybody. Saying that we're not is extremism."
Gary and Gloriann Loikith were at the Aquarium yesterday with her children, who, they said, regularly ask to go back to the Pier 4 show.
"You see a show like this," Mrs. Loikith said, "and you're ready to sign 15 petitions and call your representatives" to help save the animals.