Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 31: Coast 1953-1955

“We have stood tongue-tied in the presence of the dollar.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

The Cowans returned from Edinburgh to New York on RMS Queen Mary and wound their way home by car via the United States. Back at UBC, Cowan had been promoted to department head. From Joyce’s perspective, this translated into a growing academic herd that gathered around the salt lick of their house on 28th Avenue. Cowan was starting on his nutritional studies of deer close to home with A.J. Wood, which required bringing back newborn deer to bottle feed every hour. Ann recalls a Cooper’s Hawk which convalesced in a cage attached to the end of the garage. Garry adopted a stream of animals, starting with orphaned screech-owls for which he built a pen in his bedroom upstairs.

Back in the menagerie of academia, his teaching and graduate load had tripled, as did speaking engagements. In a speech to wildlife professionals in 1955, Cowan warned of the impacts of hydrocarbons, DDT amongst them. Like Spencer and Buckell’s warnings ten years earlier, Cowan told his audience that these chemicals are as “capable of profoundly altering the environment more rapidly, thoroughly and insidiously than ever before,” and that the corporations or “rival chemical concerns [are] so strong that demand can be created before sufficient time has been allowed for proper appraisal.” In a more personal plea to North American scientists, including the ‘B’, he had this to say during the winter solstice of 1955, when he was made head of the Wildlife Society:

To gain support for our cause we have emphasized the economic values it represents and have soft-pedalled the great intangible forces of recreating the human soul, because we have not known how to talk about them in words of mutual understanding. We have stood tongue-tied in the presence of the dollar.

Baby western screech-owl

Cowan saw the “presence of the dollar” gathering on all fronts, especially in the rapidly urbanizing Fraser delta. He and Joyce looked for a place close to home to combine work and family members’ interests. That is when they first discovered Saturna Island where his journal entries pick up again in the summer of 1954. It was on Saturna that Cowan first encountered the Orca – then known as the Pacific Killer Whale, or Blackfish – up close.

The Orca that Cowan was watching off East Point on Saturna were actually following the Chinook Salmon migration into the Fraser. In 1955, however, the animals were only known as whale “killers” and were shot routinely by fishermen. In 1945 a Vancouver newspaper article quoting Cowan featured the headline “Killer whale roams city inlet, 30-foot monster entertains ferry passengers with 20-foot spout.” Ten years had passed with little research to disabuse people of these perceptions – until one of Cowan’s students, Murray Newman, appeared on the scene.

Newman had done his master’s in ichthyology at Berkeley, training with Boyd Walker in the Gulf of Mexico. He came to UBC on an H.R. MacMillan Fellowship for fisheries research and took Cowan’s vertebrate zoology course. Two years after getting his PhD, with the help of MacMillan and other colleagues and philanthropists, Newman had set up the fledgling Vancouver Aquarium, where, as he observed, “I became extremely successful by being incompetent. I surrounded myself by intelligent people. Ian McTaggart Cowan was one of them. He was a fabulous naturalist.” Newman’s primary objective was to showcase live specimens of the undersea world to a public that had never seen them before. Getting a live specimen of a Killer Whale was believed impossible and Newman set out to get a specimen for the aquarium and a model to sculpt. The attempt to harpoon an animal was botched so they took the wounded animal to Vancouver and in Newman’s words, “the public’s reception was history-making.”

Ian McTaggart-Cowan examines anelephant seal skull (1951)

The change in attitudes towards Orca was profound and rapid for a cultural belief that had endured a century. The famous illustration of this burgeoning love affair with the Orca is the dismantling of the machine gun mounted in 1961 by fisheries managers at Seymour Narrows (narrowest spot between Vancouver Island and the mainland) intended to kill Orcas as they passed through. It was never fired. Attitudes continued to change regarding whales and whale captivity, especially amongst the scientists who worked with them.

At the same time, Cowan was encouraging graduate students to use individual identification to get accurate census and behavioural data, as his wolf study had done. One of his graduate students, Mike Bigg, who had completed his PhD at UBC on harbour seals, went on to pioneer the work on Orcas. Bigg was with Cowan and Foster in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) in the summer of 1961, on the water all summer amongst the whales. Foster pioneered research into the social organization of giraffes, identifying individuals by their spots. Bigg tackled the different whale societies of fish-eating residents and mammal-eating transients (now known as Bigg’s Whale), using their dorsal fins and saddle patches to identify and track individuals. What Bigg’s census data showed was that these distinct populations were declining and under siege.

Hubbs's Beaked Whale specimen 01

In 1975 Bigg released his report on the live-capture killer-whale fishery, describing the population through their matrilineal lineages. This important work triggered a moratorium on Orca live captures. His approach revolutionized whale research and was carried on after he died prematurely of leukemia in 1990. In 1992, Cowan, in his capacity as chair of the national advisory committee on marine mammals, prepared a follow-up report on the capture and maintenance of cetaceans in Canada. The committee documented all deaths and health records of the captive Orca, as well as the sizes and conditions of the aquaria. They did public opinion polls and consulted Arctic indigenous people, humane societies and the top scientists, including Newman himself, Paul Spong and John Ford, the next generation of whale scientists working at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Cowan’s conclusions: that live captures of Orcas should continue to be banned; that the Beluga be banned from live capture; that performance-type presentations by whales did not justify keeping animals in captivity; that present aquaria were not adequate for the care of whales; and that none of them had adequate facilities for captive breeding of Orca. He finished with the recommendation that there are better ways for people to experience whales, such as whale watching trips in the wild, video and electronic media. Although Cowan left an opening (if the aquaria could provide high enough standards of care, cetaceans could be maintained), it was the beginning of the end for whale captivity across Canada. Newman retired in 1993 and the last captive Orca at the Vancouver Aquarium was transferred to another aquarium in 2001. Cowan was ahead of the curve in the public appetite for learning about Orca, and he was instrumental in putting an end to the keeping of captive whales. He was 82 when he wrote the report. 

Ian McTaggart-Cowan journal field trips (1935-1961)
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