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Kahana And Kenau: Two Orca Deaths Deconstructed

August 27, 2014

Kahana Rising

The analysis of how and why orcas die in captivity provides interesting and often surprising insights into how they lived. So orca necropsies (which are the equivalent of human autopsies) can make for interesting reading. However, you need a specialist to interpret their meaning. So when I saw that the FOIA document dump from NMFS that Russ Rector secured contained two full orca necropsies, I sent them on to veterinarian Jon Zern for comment.

Zern is a straight shooter, and always has something interesting to say when asked about marine mammal health issues. Here is a brief summary of his background:

 I have been a small animal veterinarian for 20+ years with 14 years of critical care experience and perform a variety of soft tissue and orthopedic surgeries.  I have a keen interest in evolutionary and marine biology.  Years of scuba diving have provided me with a great appreciation for the marine environment.  I am not a marine mammal specialist, whatever that means, but am very knowledgeable with disease and disease processes.

The two orca necropsies were contained in NMFS’ files on the Tilikum purchase and import from Sealand, because SeaWorld updated NMFS on the deaths of Kahana (5/14/1991 at SeaWorld Texas, six months after a miscarriage) and Kenau (8/6/1991 at SeaWorld Florida and 12 months pregnant) as part of the permit application process.

 Kahana’s death is the more mystifying, as she was found with skull trauma that SeaWorld posited had resulted from a collision with the pool wall that occurred as a consequence of Kahana thrashing around in agony from an intestinal tumor. But Kenau’s death is also revealing, in that it is an example of the sorts of infections that can threaten the health of captive orcas.

Here are the necropsies, and the analysis SeaWorld provided NMFS regarding the orca deaths:

View this document on Scribd

Read on to see Jon Zern’s analysis of each death.

Read more…

Threat Assessment Gone (Very, Very) Wrong

August 27, 2014


So, we are filling our oceans with plastic:

I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.

And we are filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases:

Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.

The Full Tilileak Document Dump

August 26, 2014

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Earlier this summer, dolphin advocate Russ Rector managed to use FOIA to secure the release from the National Marine Fisheries Service of all documents in their files related to the purchase and import of Tilikum, Haida (and her calf), and Nootka from Sealand of the Pacific to SeaWorld.

I’ve previously posted some of the documents, and analyzed them over on The Dodo (here, here, and here).

Today, with Russ’ permission, I have uploaded the rest to Scribd, so the full set is available for anyone to read and analyze (interesting tidbit: the cost to SeaWorld for all the permit work was $200).

I am sure there is plenty of additional info in the documents that is worth noting, so please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on anything that catches your attention. Of note, there are full necropsies and related analysis of the deaths of two SeaWorld killer whales, Kahana and Kenau, as well as SeaWorld’s full Marine Mammal Inventory Report from 1991. (I have had the necropsies analyzed by Dr. Jon Zern, a veterinarian, and will post his analysis in a separate post tomorrow morning).

Since these documents are all finally available thanks to Russ and his persistence, I have asked him for his thoughts on their significance. Here’s what he has to say:

The documents I obtained from National Marine Fisheries  Service (NMFS) after many years of requests and searching are going to be made public here for the first time. These documents are a wealth of information concerning marine mammals in captivity. The one thing that stands out to me is how Sealand, Sea World and the Canadian government all seemed to work together to mislead the National Marine Fisheries Service concerning a medical emergency at Sealand and the orca Tillicum, that did not exist. Yes, the animals were in a very bad situation created by a bunch of dumb people more interested in money than how the animals were treated and cared for. But there was no true medical emergency.

Before Tillicum killed the female trainer (Keltie Byrne) at Sealand there was no medical emergency, and suddenly after he killed her there was this medical emergency that everybody in the captive industry suddenly became aware of. My question is: why did this medical emergency only surface after he killed her, not before?

That in itself is very suspicious and proves to me that this was all about getting Tillicum–a sorely needed breeder–to Sea World no matter what they had to do or say.  Veterinarians of captive facilities and those beholden to the dolphin captivity industry wrote letters saying if he wasn’t moved to Sea World immediately he was going to die. This was a set up. SeaWorld, Sealand and the Canadian government said exactly what they needed to say to mislead NMFS into issuing the permit for the emergency transport. This shows me the permitting process at NMFS is broken and archaic and does not truly protect marine mammals as the Marine Mammal Protection Act mandates. This shows me the Marine Mammal Protection Act at this point in time is the Marine Mammal Facility Protection Act. In the coming days I will be asking NMFS and The Marine Mammal Commission to ask Congress for a full program review of the permitting process for the import and export of marine mammals to and from the United States.

These documents were kept secret for too long. That’s a problem. When we get so far downstream from any incident it becomes old news and seems to be ignored. That seems to be why the captivity industry lobbies government agencies and other captive facilities to make sure this sort of information doesn’t come to light at the appropriate time. These documents have spent 22 years waiting to be discovered by the public. It’s a lot of reading so go through them and see what you can find. Please contact me if you need any assistance please contact me at

Russ Rector

Can Test Tube Meat Replace Dead Cows?

August 26, 2014

James McWilliams has his doubts:

David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canadatells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?

Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”

In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).

You know the meat industry will jump on that infection and allergy point, and scare the bejesus out of any consumer who is tempted to try lab meat.

But I think McWilliams’ point that processed lab meat is not really that different from processed soy gets to the most fundamental point, which I raised yesterday: if the choice it to simply move on from meat and cultivate a new diet and culture around delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine,  or contort oneself in all sorts of complicated ways to try and find complicated and highly processed (and dubious) substitutes for meat, isn’t it um, easier, to simply go for the veggies?

I know, people will say meat is culture, our bodies crave animal fat, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And that it is not that easy to simply move humanity past meat. But what if eating test tube meat leaves you with a craving for the real thing? What if test tube meat has other health and environmental side-effects? That doesn’t sound like an easy solution either.

To me, the simplest approach–just stop thinking about meat and meat substitutes as food–is the most promising approach. I am amazed at how quickly my body and mind stopped craving meat. And in fact I now, through some strange evolution of my body and its senses, find meat actively unappealing. It just wasn’t that hard.

Do We Really Need To Reinvent Food?

August 25, 2014

There are two basic approaches to diminishing or eliminating the environmental, health and animal welfare impacts of easting animal protein.

One is to reinvent meat and animal protein by creating plant-based substitutes, and Kate Murphy in the New York Times takes a look at all the venture capital and brainpower that Silicon Valley is throwing into this approach:

Call it Food 2.0.

Following Steve Jobs’s credo that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” a handful of high-tech start-ups are out to revolutionize the food system by engineering “meat” and “eggs” from pulverized plant compounds or cultured snippets of animal tissue. One company imagines doing away with grocery shopping, cooking and even chewing, with a liquid meal made from algae byproducts….

Venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Closed Loop Capital, Khosla Ventures and Collaborative Fund have poured money into Food 2.0 projects. Backing has also come from a hit parade of tech-world notables including Sergey Brin of Google, Biz Stone of Twitter, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as well as Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest man, who bought early stakes in Facebook and Spotify.

“We’re looking for wholesale reinvention of this crazy, perverse food system that makes people do the wrong thing,” said Josh Tetrick, the vegan chief executive of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek. His company has created an egg substitute using protein extracted from the Canadian yellow pea, incorporating it into Just Scramble, Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough, which are starting to find their way onto grocery store shelves nationwide.

I’m pretty much down with anything that can help people move away from meat and animal protein. But replacing the flavor and texture of meat or dairy is very, very hard to do. I’ve tried most of the Food 2.0 alternatives that are for sale and while some aren’t revolting, or have a bland, neutral taste and feel, none taste anything like the thing they are trying to replace. And they are highly processed and packaged.

The second approach is to simply move on from meat and animal protein without trying to replace it. There is a world of good food out there that is all-natural vegan and vegetarian. When I went vegetarian, and then vegan,  I missed meat and I missed Half and Half in my coffee. I quickly discovered that there were no true substitutes, and that instead of vainly seeking to find a perfect substitute I would waste less time, and experience less disappointment, if I simply adopted new cuisines and recipes (Indian, Asian, Latino) that don’t rely on meat or animal protein. They are out there, folks. And they are delicious.

And you know what happened? I stopped missing meat and cream, and started craving two things: vegetables (though my wife can’t believe that I sometimes want to eat brussels sprouts for breakfast) and unprocessed food. And that makes eating pretty enjoyable and easy.

And sorry Silicon Valley: no Frankenfoods are required.

Tilikum At Sealand, Uncut

August 22, 2014

I’ve got a post over at The Dodo, featuring the newly released 8-minute video SeaWorld made at the end of 1991, showing Sealand and Tilikum’s circumstances there. The video was submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service in support of SeaWorld’s application for an emergency permit to transport Tilikum to SeaWorld Florida. Boy, do I wish we had had this video when we were putting Blackfish together.

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This video, along with lots of other documents related to Tilikum’s purchase and transfer to SeaWorld, was prised loose from NMFS archives by dolphin advocate Russ Rector. I’ve looked at some of the interesting aspects of the documents here and here. But I haven’t begun to dig through every page of the FOIA dump Russ scored. So next week, with Russ’ permission, I’ll post the whole cache on Scribd so anyone can review them.

The Global Livestock Footprint

August 22, 2014

It’s pretty massive. According to National Geographic, only 55% of the world’s crop calories are consumed directly by people. Fully 36% of the world’s crop calories are used for animal feed. And since it takes 100 calories of grain to produce 12 calories of chicken, or 3 calories of beef, that’s not very efficient.

Here’s what it looks like:

With the global population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, we have a very simple choice: we can destroy more forests and natural landscapes and put it to the plow or use it for grazing, or we can eat less meat. A lot less meat. And that doesn’t even account for the climate change impact of meat.


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