#Blackfish Archives: Keto/Alexis Martinez Incident Reports

After Alexis Martinez was killed by Keto, both SeaWorld/Loro Parque and the Canary Islands OSHA equivalent launched investigations into the incident. These reports are the most detailed and revealing accounts of exactly what happened between Keto and Alexis Martinez (and you can read my reporting and analysis of what they mean in my story about Alexis’ death).

Here is the SeaWorld/Loro Parque corporate incident report:

Here is the Canary Islands Dept. Of Labor Report (Spanish):

#Blackfish Archives: Alexis Martinez Case Files

Continuing to archive documents and reports related to the tragic death of trainer Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in December, 2009, this upload includes (in Spanish): Preliminary Pathology; Police Interviews; Hospital Summaries; Autopsy Report; Excerpts From Alexis’ Diary Of Work At Loro Parque; Timeline Summary of Loro Parque video of incident; Labor Dept. Investigation.

Blackfish Archives: Profile Of Keto

Loro Parque Killer Whales

In December 2009, killer whale trainer Alexis Martinez was killed at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands by Keto, an orca that had been transferred there by SeaWorld. At the time, Martinez’s tragic death got little attention. But when SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed just over two months later at Sea World in Orlando, Martinez’s death became the warning that no one listened to.

I wrote a story investigating how and why Martinez was killed,  how it was handled, and why it was relevant to Brancheau’s subsequent death. In the course of my reporting, I collected a lot of documentation. As part of my ongoing effort to post documents and materials collected during my reporting on killer whale captivity to a publicly accessible Blackfish Archives, I am posting Keto’s SeaWorld profile as the initial document which helps tell the story of Keto and Alexis Martinez (at the time my story was published I also posted a detailed and troubling review of the many problems at Loro Parque written by Suzanne Allee, who worked at Loro Parque). .

Blackfish Archives: Birth And Death At Dolphins Plus

Over the past decade I have accumulated a lot of documentation related to marine mammal captivity. So I am going to start publishing items of interest.

This video comes from Russ Rector, who died in 2018 and was a colorful, relentless and vocal critic of dolphinariums. One of his key strategies was simply to send people out to film at various facilities, because he knew that the realities of captivity could not be hidden from view, and when things happened he wanted it on video.

He sent me this edit of a longer video a few years ago. It shows the birth of a calf at Dolphins Plus in the Florida Keys, and how a moment of creation turns into a moment of tragedy.

Russ had no love for Dolphins Plus, and also in 1993 secured from former employee David Valdez this sworn testimony about practices and incidents at Dolphin Plus.

Shamu Flu?

“Dammit, this trainer’s runny nose is getting all over me.”

Maybe the world–forced into social-distancing lockdown and economic pain–is finally waking up to the many dangers of zoonotic viruses that can pass back and forth between humans and animals, and how close contact between humans and animals in factory farming, the bushmeat economy, and the wildlife trade and its “wet markets,” sharply elevates the risks.

And we have also seen how zoo animals, like a tiger at the Bronx zoo, can “catch” a virus from a human. Now the Voice Of San Diego notes that Sea World’s Shamu, and two other killer whales, were also likely infected by a flu virus passed from a trainer:

SeaWorld’s founding veterinarian was named Dr. David Kenney, a young man in the 1960s “who took credit for naming Shamu … and then figured out how to fly her to Sea World from Seattle,” according to his 2012 obituary in the Wall Street Journal.

In January 1969, Kenney noticed that Shamu and two other killer whales named Ramu and Kilroy seemed out of sorts. According to The San Diego Union, they had “bad cases of the sniffles, poor appetite, weakness and that all-over aching feeling.” Shamu, the paper reported, had been “moaning all day” and was “lethargic and irritable.”

The killer whales got a lighter schedule (although they apparently didn’t get to sit around and do nothing), and Kenney wondered whether they’d come down with the human flu. “We can’t be certain that they have human influenza,” he told the paper, “but the symptomology correlates, and blood tests indicate their infection is viral in nature.”

That killer whales in captivity can be victim to viruses they likely would not pick up in the wild, has already been established. And now Ingrid Visser and 20 scientists have published a detailed review of novel viruses in captive marine mammals and issued a call for killer whales and other marine mammals to be added to a permanent ban on the import of wildlife into China. They note that dozens of captive orcas have died from respiratory infections over the years, but that we don’t really know the extent of the problem because so many necropsies are kept confidential. It’s an eye-opening review, and you can read it here (and below):

Factory farms and wildlife markets are no doubt the most worrisome vectors for zoonotic viruses. But the fact that captive marine mammals and other zoo animals have also been infected by viruses that likely were passed from humans, and could themselves be the source of viruses that pass to humans, is just one more urgent reminder that humanity needs to dramatically change its relationship with animals–especially the degree to which they are commoditized and industrialized, and brought into the human economy.

First #Blackfish. Now COVID.

It’s not good to be SeaWorld (or its CEO) these days.

SeaWorld Entertainment’s chief executive has resigned only five months into his job, becoming the third leader of the theme park company to depart in just over two years, according to a company filing released Monday.

Sergio Rivera cited his disagreement with the board of directors’ involvement in decision-making at the company, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

His predecessor, Gustavo “Gus” Antorcha, cited a similar reason for his leaving last September [snip]…

…The spread of the novel coronavirus has paralyzed the theme park industry. Like most other theme park companies operating in the U.S., SeaWorld’s 12 theme parks have been closed since mid-March.

The company said more than a week ago that it was furloughing 90% of its workers.

It would be interesting to know just what, exactly, is causing so much turmoil between SeaWorld CEOs and the SeaWorld Board. Whatever it is, the underlying problem is that SeaWorld’s business model, and its reliance on captive animals and large crowds, is simply not a good fit for today’s world.

Tooth Damage Is A Major Health Problem For Captive Orcas

Orca tooth problems.

It has long seemed that one of the biggest challenges of keeping orcas healthy in captivity is dental care. Many captive orcas wear down and break their teeth by fighting, and chewing on concrete or the gates between pools. If the damage is bad enough SeaWorld and other facilities drill out the teeth and then flush them daily. Even so, the damaged teeth become prone to infection, infections which can lead to serious health problems.

To more fully gauge and understand the extent of this threat, John Jett and Jeff Ventre, two former SeaWorld trainers, along with other researchers, studied dental damage in captive orcas, using photography to catalogue and evaluate the problem.  The result, “Tooth Damage In Captive Orcas, which appears in the Archives Of Oral Biology, is a comprehensive, scientific, assessment that reveals how common and extensive tooth damage in captivity really is.

Highlights of the paper include:

  • Mouth images of 29 orca held in captivity were evaluated for tooth damage. Individual teeth in the mandible and maxilla were scored for coronal wear, wear at or below the gum line, fractures, bore holes and missing.
  • Dental damage was present in all whales examined, and the various pathologies were observed across animals with different durations of captivity, across both sexes, in captive-born and wild-captured whales as well as whales kept in each facility. Dental pathology was especially prominent for mandibular teeth.
  • Forty five percent of whales exhibited “moderate” mean mandibular coronal wear, and an additional 24% exhibited “major” to “extreme” wear.
  • Bore holes were observed primarily within anterior mandibular teeth, with more than 61% of tooth 2 and 3 and 47.27% of tooth 4 bearing evidence of having undergone the modified pulpotomy procedure.
  • Dental damage begins early in a captive whale’s life.
  • Both conspecific aggression among captive whales and oral stereotypies such as biting and chewing on concrete and steel tank surfaces likely contributed to the tooth pathology observed.

Keeping any animal captive–especially a highly evolved, free-ranging, top predator–presents unusual health issues, both mental and physical. It is unlikely many marine park visitors suspect that tooth damage is one of the leading health challenges for captive orcas. But this paper makes clear how common the problem is, and how severe the damage can be. That is important, because the more we understand the negative side-effects of keeping animals captive for entertainment, the better we can weigh the ethical question of whether it is justified.

More On Salmon And Southern Residents

“Damn, these things are getting hard to find.”

From Erica Cirino in The Revelator. Again, the focus is on dams:

According to experts, the reason for the starvation in the Southern Residents is most definitely a lack of salmon, which make up the largest and most nutritious part of their diet. Wasser and his fellow researchers found that levels of thyroid hormones were lowest in the Southern Resident whales following known drops in Chinook salmon from the Fraser River, while increases in salmon in the river were associated with increases in thyroid hormone levels.

In the past 10 years, salmon — particularly those spawning in the Columbia River — have decreased. While that’s certain, Wasser said what’s not well understood is why their numbers are dropping. Overfishing and habitat loss due to development could play a role in the fish’s demise. However, it appears more likely that the construction of hydroelectric dams on rivers where salmon spawn and migrate are to blame.

“Some say dams are key, including the Snake River dam, which impacts levels of early spring Chinook, some of the fattiest fish known and essential to replenish whales from the harsh winter and sustain them until the Fraser River Chinook run peaks in the summer,” said Wasser.

Giles takes a stronger personal stance when it comes to discussing the threats to survival the Southern Residents face. She said it’s clear that fishing restrictions and dam removal are necessary in order to replenish salmon and killer whale populations in the Pacific Northwest. But making her voice heard has been something she’s been criticized for doing as a scientist.

“I won’t stop telling the truth about what’s happening just because it’s politically ‘incorrect’ or unpopular,” said Giles. “We need to take action now or we’ll lose these genetically and culturally distinct whales forever.”

Whether we succeed in doing what is necessary to help this population survive, or whether we let them dwindle away, is a true test of whether anyone really cares enough about the rest of the species on this planet. Everyone says they love killer whales. But if they can’t be mobilized to help a species they love, then what hope do all the other species have?

Southern Resident Killer Whales Are Losing Too Many Calves

“Hi folks. It’s touching that you are so interested in me, but how about doing what you can to put more salmon in my habitat?”

Seventy-percent of pregnancies are resulting in miscarriage, estimates one study. And the scientists behind the report believe they know why:

Over the years, killer whales accumulate toxins from their food in their fat. Normally, these pesticides and chemicals, such as PCBs or DDT, have chronic effects on the whales. But in recent years something else has happened: chinook salmon—one of the whales’ most important food sources—have dwindled.

When the whales don’t get enough to eat, they start to burn their fat reserves, which releases the stored toxins into their bloodstreams. This hurts the health of the developing calf, and the effect is particularly pronounced late in the pregnancy when the fetus is growing rapidly.

“The cumulative effects of loss of food and release of toxins are the best predicators of whether or not a pregnant female will take a fetus to term or abort it,” Wasser says.

If that is right, then the only way to boost the chances that this endangered population will survive is to rapidly boost populations of their favorite food, Chinook salmon. That isn’t easy, but breaching dams where Pacific salmon spawn, allowing greater numbers to get upriver and reproduce, is one key step supported by researchers who study the Southern Resident killer whales.

NOAA disagrees, but at this point it seems clear that more radical and creative solutions are required if there is to be any hope of supporting the remarkable population of killer whales that reside in the Pacific Northwest–who unfortunately occupy a habitat that is deeply impacted by human activity from pollution, to shipping, to fishing (not to mention a decade of captures). We are responsible for their troubles. We should feel a moral obligation to do what is needed to reverse their decline.

The Exploitation Of Navy Dolphins

“Dude, I know you don’t have much for me to do, but spinning me in circles to research dizziness is ridiculous.”

I have long heard terrible tales of invasive and cruel research done by the US Navy’s marine mammal program. So it doesn’t really surprise me to know that the dolphins the US Navy is currently keeping in San Diego are also subject to invasive research that has little benefit to dolphins (as usual, Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute is on the case). From a CBS News 8 report:

Kept in pens on San Diego Bay for decades, the Navy dolphins have developed a number of chronic diseases similar to those in humans; diseases like kidney stones, liver disease, iron overload and prediabetes symptoms.

“The prevalence of these conditions in the Navy dolphin program is much higher than in the wild,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC.

Dr. Rose believes Navy dolphin research should be more about conservation than curing human diseases.

“If you’re going to keep them in captivity then the research you do with them has to have a direct, positive input into their conservation in the wild.  It has to be of value to (the dolphins),” Dr. Rose said.

Some of the research the NMMF conducts does, in fact, focus on conservation.  It can also be invasive to varying degrees.

In a 2016 study, dolphins were given cortisone – a hormonal steroid – to determine what levels can be measured in the animal’s blubber.  The study required up to nine blubber biopsies, obtained from the dolphins’ backs over five days.

“A cold pack was placed on the skin of the biopsy site for several minutes just prior to the biopsy procedure in order the numb the site,” the study’s researchers wrote.

“Two to three needle punches were required per sample to obtain sufficient blubber,” the study revealed.

Scientists also obtained daily fecal samples using a 15-inch catheter tube inserted into the animal’s anus.

In a 2008 study and another study in 2011, the Navy dolphins were subjected to near freezing water, in part, to find out if the animals could live in the frigid ocean waters of a Navy sub base in Washington State.

Over the course of ten days, the dolphins were monitored for indications of cold stress, such as increased respiration rate and shivering.

“They basically forced these animals into temperature conditions that were completely outside their physiological norm. All to justify moving them to this submarine base,” said Dr. Rose, referring to the 2008 study.

In a 2010 study, NMMF scientists used a feeding tube it force a gallon of seawater into the stomachs of Navy dolphins.  The purpose was to monitor osmoregulation – water and salt levels – in the dolphin’s body.

A catheter was placed into the dolphin’s bladder to obtain urine samples over a period of 25 hours.

Some of the dolphins objected to the procedure and the study on those animals was halted, according to the published paper.

“Objected.” That is a nice euphemism.

This is just one more example of the way in which animals, especially dolphins, are commoditized for human purposes. Animal welfare counts for little; human welfare counts for everything (though in this case the benefits aren’t even very clear).

The Navy dolphins are in some ways surplus, as their mine-hunting and other missions are increasingly supplanted by underwater drones and robots. But the Navy really doesn’t know what to do with them. That makes them a fat target for self-interested researchers who want to keep grant money rolling in regardless of whether the research is particularly useful or damaging to the dolphins. That’s messed up.

Video report here. And more from Naomi Rose here.