Can The Vaquita Be Saved? Probably Not But…

“What the heck did I ever do to anyone to deserve becoming the most endangered cetacean on the planet?”

Next month will see the start of a Hail Mary effort to save the rapidly dwindling population of vaquitas in the Gulf Of California. Great backstory on why the vaquita is disappearing in this Hakai article, which describes the upcoming effort thus:

This October, Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) plans to launch a Hail Mary that will cost more than $5-million in 2017 alone to round up as many vaquitas as possible, and hold them in captivity for as long as it takes to make their habitat safe. Scientists, veterinarians, and experts from organizations in Mexico, the United States, and other countries hope to find them by using acoustic monitors, visual observers, and trained US Navy dolphins. Then, they’ll place nets in their path, and if they can catch them, immediately disentangle them and transport them to temporary open-water enclosures in the Upper Gulf until a more permanent sanctuary can be developed. It’s risky: not all porpoise species tolerate captivity. Even if vaquitas turn out to be among those that do, little is known about what they need to thrive and breed. “We have to be incredibly rapid students of how to deal with fully captive populations and be in there for the long term,” says Barbara Taylor, lead of the US-based Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Genetics Program and a key member of CIRVA. “It’s going to be decades.”

It’s unclear how many vaquitas will be left to catch. This past spring, Jaramillo-Legorreta quietly deployed a handful of acoustic monitors a few months earlier than usual. Then, not long before vaquitas reached peak media visibility in June—with US movie star Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, throwing their weight behind vaquita conservation efforts—CIRVA revealed that the creatures had all but disappeared. The monitors detected vaquitas only twice, far fewer times than anticipated. Until results are in from this summer’s full monitoring effort, “the data are hard to interpret,” Taylor says. But they “make us very worried.”

As I say, total Hail Mary. And an opportunity for marine park trainers to put some of their experience to real conservation for once (see this urgent call for trainers to help care for any vaquitas that are captured and moved to a net pen).

Of course it would be nice if we managed our fishing industries, and poverty, well enough to avoid this sort of crisis. Not to mention putting an end to the Asia-driven poaching of all sorts of rare and fragile species around the globe. But until our species gets its act together, any and all nonhuman species-saving strategies, no matter how unlikely or hare-brained, are well worth the effort.

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.

Russian Captive Dolphins Lead Lives Just As Miserable As Other Captive Dolphins

A Russian dolphin trainer, Sergei Kozhemyakin from Moscow, unburdens himself after a lifetime of working with captive dolphins. Not much of what he says is very surprising, but the important thing is that he is adding to a growing wealth of insider testimony regarding the realities for dolphins of life in an entertainment pool.

Releasing Captive Dolphins Back Into The Oceans

chunsam
Chunsam, with her freeze brand #2 sorta visible, enjoys life back in the wild.

 

As the public becomes more aware of the ethical issue involved with keeping dolphins and killer whales captive, and public sentiment about captivity changes, the question of whether captive dolphins and killer whales can successfully be released back into the wild is increasingly relevant.

While there have been many releases of captive dolphins, there have been relatively few releases of long-term show dolphins, and even fewer that were fully documented. In recent years, however, two bottlenose dolphins (named Tom and Misha) were successfully released back into the Aegean, and three bottlenose dolphins (Jedol, Chunsam, and Sampal) were successfully released off Jeju Island, South Korea. All had spent years in marine parks, yet managed to learn what they needed to learn to survive again in the ocean.

Both releases were carefully documented, during and after release, and show what can be achieved, even with dolphins that have suffered greatly in captivity. My story about these dolphins,  and the question of captive release, was just published at National Geographic.

Here’s the start:

In early January 2011 Jeff Foster, a 55-year-old marine mammal expert from Seattle, arrived on the stony shore of a pristine bay near the small village of Karaca, situated in a corner of the Gulf of Gökova on Turkey’s southwest coast. Just offshore was a collection of floating pens used to farm fish. In one of them, which had been modified and measured about a hundred feet across and 50 feet deep, two male bottlenose dolphins swam in slow circles.

Tom and Misha, as they were called, were in lamentable condition. As far as anyone could tell, they’d been captured in the Aegean sometime in 2006, and almost nothing was known about their lives in the wild. After starting their captive lives at a dolphin park in the seaside town of Kaş, they’d been trucked a short distance inland in June 2010 to a crudely constructed concrete pool in the mountain town of Hisarönü so that tourists could pay $50 for the chance to grab their dorsal fins and get a ten-minute tow. Hisarönü consists mainly of cheap hotels and bars with suggestive names like Oh Yes! and thumping late-night music. It would be hard to imagine a more incongruous or disorienting location for two ocean-born dolphins. An inadequate filtration system quickly left the bottom of their pool carpeted with dead fish and dolphin feces.

Within weeks, an outraged grassroots and social media campaign organized by dolphin-loving locals had forced the place to close. In early September, amid fears that the dolphins would soon die, the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of animals in the wild, stepped in and took possession of Tom and Misha. The two dolphins were bundled into a refrigerated meat truck lined with old mattresses and transported to the pen off Karaca. Foster was hired to help Born Free attempt something truly ambitious: restore Tom and Misha to peak physical condition, teach them what they would need to know to live as wild dolphins again, and release them back into the Aegean. “It is extremely high risk with a creature that is not predictable and easy,” says Will Travers, Born Free’s president. “But we realized that there were very few options for them, and they were likely to die unless somebody did something.”

You can read the whole thing here. And there is a great photo gallery here. Hope you find it interesting.

SeaWorld’s (Slippery) Support Of The Virgin Pledge

SeaWorld has released a statement supporting the Virgin Pledge:

SeaWorld welcomed the opportunity to participate, along with similarly accredited organizations, in the six-month stakeholder engagement process on marine mammals conducted by Virgin Unite. We have always been willing to lend our expertise to any objective and science-based process that seeks to assure the health and welfare of animals living in professionally operated zoological institutions.

SeaWorld has supported efforts to protect and conserve our oceans for future generations since we first opened our gates 50 years ago. We were pleased to share this commitment with Virgin Holidays, and fully support their pledge concerning the collection of whales and dolphins from the wild — something SeaWorld hasn’t done in decades. The millions of guests who come through our gates each year are not only inspired and educated by what our parks offer, but also are key contributors to the important conservation and research we do that helps protect wildlife and wild places. We thank Virgin for recognizing the vital role zoological facilities can play in ocean preservation and conservation and look forward to working with them on these efforts in the future.

I highlighted the section about wild captures because it makes two questions pop into my head:

1) How does this statement lauding SeaWorld’s restraint regarding wild captures square with the fact that SeaWorld was part of a consortium led by Georgia Aquarium that in the past few years both captured 18 wild belugas and tried to import them into the United States?

The import permit was denied (Georgia Aquarium is appealing), which I suppose allows SeaWorld to stay technically consistent with the Virgin Pledge. Though to the extent that SeaWorld was part of the consortium that captured the belugas (even if Georgia Aquarium was acting as the umbrella for the group) I don’t think they can honestly say they haven’t “collected” from the wild in decades.

2) If protecting and conserving our oceans is linked to refraining from wild dolphin and whale captures, why stop with those species? Why not help protect and conserve our oceans by refraining from all wild captures?

Both those questions posed, I do credit SeaWorld for taking the Virgin Pledge. I also think it will have positive implications going forward, implications that SeaWorld may or may not have thought through. Having signed the pledge, plenty of people (like me) will keep an eye on the extent to which SeaWorld remains true to the spirit and letter of the pledge. And that could constrain how they pursue their marine mammal entertainment business.

For example, what if Georgia Aquarium wins its appeal regarding the wild beluga import? Will SeaWorld take its allotment of 11 belugas, and say “oh well, never mind” with regard to the Virgin Pledge? Or will it make a painfully self-interested argument that the beluga import is about conserving a wild species (even though belugas are not listed as endangered by the IUCN)? Or will it say “Hey, those belugas were caught before February 2014, so stop hassling us?”

No matter what option it chose, SeaWorld’s choice would come under extra-detailed scrutiny because it has signed the Virgin Pledge. Is it even conceivable that SeaWorld would take a look at how bringing in 11 wild belugas would look in light of changing public opinion about captivity and their support of the  Virgin Pledge, and take a pass on the wild belugas? Unlikely, I know. But these days it seems like almost anything is possible.

I can also forsee other choices SeaWorld might have to make in the future that will get extra scrutiny, and may even be constrained, thanks to SeaWorld’s commitment to the Virgin Pledge (even if the action comports with a very lawyerly, narrow reading of the words of the pledge).What about engaging in breeding loans with captive facilities that violate the Virgin Pledge? Or keeping future rescue animals for SeaWorld shows? Or breeding wild caught rescue animals, like Morgan, to increase SeaWorld’s killer whale holdings and benefit its bottom line?

That sort of analysis against the Virgin Pledge will be a very good thing. And while enthusiastically signing onto the Virgin Pledge today might yield a quick PR bump, I wonder if SeaWorld may come to regret taking the pledge down the road.

The Virgin Pledge** (**Including Loopholes And Caveats)

After months of deliberation, Sir Richard Branson has finally settled on the language of the pledge he wants captive facilities to make if they would like to continue to do business with Virgin companies. Here is how the Virgin Pledge reads:

THE_VIRGIN_PLEDGE_crop_sept_2014-1

While Branson and Virgin should get credit for at least engaging on this issue, and while this pledge would mean that a marine park can’t just buy a Taiji dolphin and continue to do business with Virgin, that’s about all it achieves. If you caught lots of wild dolphins for your shows before February 2014, no problem. If you engage in breeding loans with marine parks that capture wild dolphins and killer whales, no problem as long as the animal you are importing wasn’t wild caught (though it can be the offspring of a wild dolphin or whale, allowing your breeding program to benefit from wild captures). So the limitations it places on marine parks are quite narrow. Perhaps that’s why many, including SeaWorld, have already signed the pledge.

More problematic is the fact that the pledge is riddled with potential loopholes, for “rehabilitation,” “rescue,” and (this one could eventually be massive) “support for endangered species.”

The pledge says that rehab of injured or stranded wild dolphins or whales is okay, as long as you go to the trouble of at least pretending that you intend to try and follow rehab with release. But if you don’t happen to follow through, then feel free to go ahead and use the rehabbed animal in your shows and in your breeding program. Sorry, Morgan.

Rescue is similar. If a government authority deems your rescued dolphin or killer whale non-releasable, you are good to go. Shows, breeding, whatever.

What is not clear is whether a “rehabilitation” animal needs a government agency to say the animal can’t be released (making the animal a “rescue” animal?) in order for a facility to keep the animal. Or whether the simple declared intention to rehab and release is enough for Virgin to continue doing business with you if you decide circumstances have changed and you can’t release your rehabbed dolphin or whale. If the latter, then the “rescue” provision pretty much does nothing.

In some ways, that distinction doesn’t really matter. If Sir Richard and Virgin had dug deep enough into the issue of rehab and rescue they would have discovered that it is without question a backdoor into captivity for at least a proportion of wild animals, often with the willing assent of government authorities who for decades have sided with the marine parks over conservation groups when it comes to deciding whether an animal is releasable or not.

The last exception, “Support For Endangered Species” sounds like it could develop into a significant loophole, though we’ll have to see how Virgin chooses to interpret its language. These days, many wild captures or import permit requests claim that bringing a wild animal into captivity will help conserve it in the wild. However, most dolphin species (including most killer whale populations), and many whale species are not listed as endangered.

So what will this exception mean in practice? If the Georgia Aquarium succeeds in reversing the National Marine Fisheries Service denial of its request to import 18 wild-caught belugas, would Virgin stop doing business with Georgia Aquarium? Georgia Aquarium, notably, has not yet signed Virgin’s pledge. But SeaWorld has. Would SeaWorld be able to “borrow” some of Georgia Aquarium’s wild-caught belugas and claim this exemption by arguing it will be helping conserve wild beluga populations? If it could then the exemption will open up a pretty big door into captivity for wild-caught animals, especially as wild populations continue to come under pressure from pollution, noise and climate change.

Here’s the bottom line. Virgin says that “our core objective was to eliminate demand for whales and dolphins from the wild.” I think a fair reading of the pledge is that it could reduce demand for wild captures (and how great that reduction is will depend on how Virgin interprets the actions of marine parks according to the Pledge), but it will certainly not eliminate demand.

For all these reasons, whale and dolphin groups have issued a statement in response to the Virgin Pledge, correctly noting its limitations. Smartly, they call on Virgin to continue refining its pledge to reflect evolving public opinion on the issue of marine mammal captivity:

Although the pledge is a step in the right direction, we expected more from the Virgin stakeholder process, and we are calling on Virgin to return to the table to discuss  key future actions including a commitment to (1) work with suppliers to end shows and captive breeding programs within a specified timeframe , (2) prohibit breeding or display as part of rescue or rehabilitation programs, and (3) help develop sanctuaries or other alternative display environments that ultimately improve the quality of life for captives that may never be returned to the wild.

This is exactly the right response, and since this controversy over captivity will not go away simply because Virgin has issued its first take on the pledge, I think that the dialogue between Virgin and all stakeholders will continue to evolve over the coming years. Of course, that does not do much good for the dolphins and whales currently in captivity. But I think the Virgin Pledge reflects an important acknowledgement that there are ethical issues with regard to the current captivity model, and that changing public opinion means that the captive industry is not always a good industry to be doing business with (as Southwest and others have also concluded).  And as public opinion and awareness of the ethical issues raised by marine mammal captivity continue to build, businesses like Virgin will continue to challenge the captive industry to evolve and change for the better.

[Personal nit-pick on the Virgin Pledge: Sir Richard, in his introduction of the Virgin Pledge, says that the announcement he made in February, which set all this in motion, was that Virgin businesses would only do business with suppliers who pledge not to take “sea mammals” from the wild. Yet the pledge only applies to cetacea (dolphins and whales). So as far as Virgin is concerned it is still a free-for-all when it comes to capturing wild sea lions, walruses, and other pinnipeds for the shows. Somehow they got dropped from the pledge, and since that is the case Virgin should stop referring to the “Virgin Pledge On Sea Mammals.”  It should correctly be called be the “Virgin Pledge On Some Sea Mammals (But Not All Of Them Because People Care More About Dolphins And Whales)”].

UK’s Guardian Looks At The Future Of Marine Parks

Seems like everyone is trying to peer into SeaWorld’s future these days (and they should be!). But Will Coldwell of the Guardian does a really nice job of picking up all the trends in play right now:

While SeaWorld continues to dig its heels in – pointing out that tens of thousands of visitors are in its parks right now – others are responding more progressively. In 2012 the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a highly regarded institution synonymous with its dolphin show, cancelled its performances. Since then visitors have been able to sit and watch the dolphins as they are simply taken care of by staff. Now, the aquarium is considering retiring their eight bottlenose dolphins altogether and is in talks to create the first ocean-side dolphin sanctuary in the US. Its decision was based on regular polling of visitors; it learned that people no longer felt comfortable with the show.

“Our audience has evolved,” Aquarium CEO John Racanelli told Baltimore Magazine. “Baby boomers grew up on Flipper, but millennials grew up on Free Willy and The Cove. They are interested in these animals being treated more humanely.”

Others are following suit. This September, the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida announced it would also end animal shows, choosing to focus on rehabilitation and marine resources instead. When asked by the Guardian if SeaWorld would ever consider a similar move, the company said the terms “retire” and “sanctuary” are misplaced in the context of animal care. But added: “The short answer is no.”

I think it’s very telling that Baltimore’s National Aquarium based its evolutionary leap toward the future on polling its own visitors. Presumably SeaWorld is regularly polling its audience as well, and I wonder what those surveys are saying (maybe that info will turn up in one of the imminent shareholder lawsuits).

Read the whole thing. You’ll finish with a good understanding of all the forces in play right now.

Animal Care Chronicles Wrap-Up

King Ralph

The final installment of my conversations with former Animal Care workers Jim Horton, Cynthia Payne, and Krissy Dodge is now up on The Dodo. (Previous conversations are here and here).

In this round, Jim and Cynthia talk about what it was like to try and dive the dolphin feeding pools to keep them clear of objects that either fell in or were thrown in by guests. And Jim explains the impossible situation he faced with an irate male dolphin called Ralph:

The young calves would maybe grab your flippers and drag you back. That was kind of fun, though the number one rule was never to react. You didn’t want to reinforce it so we would never react to any behavior. We’d just ignore the animals totally. But Ralph would really mess with you. He’d get in your face and be jaw popping really hard. He’d be 6 inches from your face slamming his mouth shut with 200 pounds of force. It would sound like firecrackers going off underwater. You could tell [he was coming]. He’d start vocalizing really loud, and you’d go ‘Oh lord, Ralph is getting worked up.’ He’d get right in your face and scream and vocalize, really, really loud. Or he’d grab you by the head and pull you around. He’d lay on top of you.

Krissy concludes with the traumatic death of a sea lion named Eric, which prompted her to quit SeaWorld. It is a story she has never before told publicly:

We went to give him fluids and Eric began to go into convulsions. His head was shaking involuntarily. All of a sudden he arched his back into what they call the ‘death arch’ and he laid down and stopped breathing. He had no pulse. We thought he had died. Several people left to get ready for the necropsy. I stayed with him. He then started breathing again and I felt a pulse in his neck. The decision was made to euthanize him. But Eric’s body was not taking the poison. Even though it was injected into his heart, he didn’t die. Eric was taken to necropsy anyway. He was hoisted onto the truck, taken to the necropsy room and laid on the floor. He was still breathing. I figured we’d just wait for him to die, but I was wrong. What happened next I will never forget.

Read the whole thing here.

Since this is the last in the series I want to emphasize that it took courage for Jim, Cynthia, and Krissy to tell their stories, especially because they knew that doing so would provoke criticism and personal attacks from all sides of the spectrum. And, already, I have seen many unthinking and knee-jerk comments on social media that add nothing to the debate our our thinking about animal care, marine mammal captivity and marine parks.

We all expected that. But the reason to put these stories on the record is to add to the growing wealth of information and experience that comes from people who have worked in the industry. So anyone who really wants to learn and think about marine mammal captivity, and what it is like for both animals and those who work and care for them, can now read what Jim, Cynthia and Krissy had to say. And hopefully that will help deepen, inform, and expand the post-Blackfish debate about marine mammal captivity.

So I greatly appreciate the spirit Jim, Cynthia and Krissy have shown in sharing their experiences. And I hope you do too, no matter how you react to the information.

More Animal Care Chronicles: Into The Dolphin Feeding Pools

Krissy Dodge feeding the dolphins at SeaWorld San Antonio.

Over the past year I’ve had some fascinating and revealing conversations with three dedicated former SeaWorld Animal Care workers: Jim Horton, Cynthia Payne and Krissy Dodge. Their experiences have given me a much deeper understanding of the lives of the animals at marine parks (and the lives of the employees!), and last month I published some of what they had to say over on Outside Online.

Today, The Dodo is publishing another installment of my conversations with Jim, Cynthia and Krissy. It focuses on the dolphin feeding pools, a steady and important source of revenue at SeaWorld. This installment will be followed by another either later this week, or early next week.

Here’s a sample of the conversations that are up today (Jim Horton talking about doing medical check-ups on the dolphins):

Occasionally we’d have to get a young calf whose Mom was still in the pool. Mom would do anything trying to get the calf away from us. I broke my nose once on [the vet’s] head. I had the calf. He was trying to stop the female from getting to me, and she whacked him. And he went flying and his head went right into my face and knocked me practically unconscious.

We did not mess with calves until they were one year old. But when we did at that age of one year and up, the little ones really put up a good fight as this was something new. So that generally took two to three guys. But then the mothers would come after us in attempts to dislodge the calf. A coordinated effort was required to grab both mother and calf at the same time and hold them very close together, face to face. We would handle only one animal at a time, unless it was a mom and calf. So it was always a battle in that pool and those animals weren’t really trained to do much.

Read the whole thing here. You will learn lots of new things about dolphin feeding pools. I promise.