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)”].

Who Is White Sphere? The Barely Disguised Conglomerate Behind Russia’s Wild Orca Captures

So there are no killer whales in Sochi for the Olympics, just athletes and spectators.

But the run-up to the opening of the Winter Games featured an unexpected, and persistent, media story-line: wild-caught Russian killer whales would be joining the athletes at the Black Sea resort. Based mostly on rumors, mysterious and contradictory tweets, and unconfirmed reports, the basic narrative was that a Russian company called White Sphere had, over the past two years, captured 8 orcas from the Sea Of Okhotsk and two of them were headed to Sochi to wow the Olympic crowds and generate Olympic-size profits for the Sochi Dolphinarium.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 10.21.19 PM

The story mobilized animal rights activists, and reporters bombarded White Sphere and the Sochi Dolphinarium with questions about their killer whale doings. After trying to ignore media queries, the story got enough traction that White Sphere, a builder of aquariums (including aquariums for marine mammal display) issued an adamant denial on its Facebook page (it’s also here), saying “White Sphere officially declares that we have nothing to do with catching the killer whales or any other marine animals.” (Aquatoriya, the company which operates the Sochi Dolphinarium also took to Facebook to issue a heated and similarly self-righteous denial; also posted here). The impassioned and indignant White Sphere statement (you have to read the whole thing in Google Translate to get the full Boris Badenov flavor), acknowledged that White Sphere builds aquariums to display marine mammals, but added (I’ve had parts of the statement translated, for better accuracy; sorry Google Translate):

“If the amateur conservationists and sensation-hungry press thought twice and performed more rigorous investigation, they would have found neither documents supporting connections between “White Sphere” and captures of animals, nor holding facilities belonging to it. It’s unlikely that the company’s name would be mentioned by organizations allocating quotas for captures of marine animals. With no less surprise they would have found that inspections would discover no orcas in the Sochi dolphinarium (including those “captured by “White Sphere”).”

The statement, in similar high dudgeon, goes on to decry the slander and the damage done to White Sphere and its employees and partners. It bemoans the fact that the world media got White Sphere and its business so wrong. It encourages journalists to do proper reporting and investigation of the facts.

So I did. And here is what I found, with help on the ground in Moscow.

The idea that White Sphere has been connected to the capture of wild killer whales in Russia starts with the work of Erich Hoyt–co-founder of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) and a senior research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who tracks the Russian orca hunt very closely. Hoyt is careful, reliable, and has good sources and connections in Russia. And in an interview last November, he detailed the web of companies involved in the capture of the 8 killer whales taken from Russian waters  (including a female called “Narnia”) over the past two years:

“For these 7 orcas this year [2013] and the one last year [2012], it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The [Sochi Dolphinarium] is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.”

Via https://www.facebook.com/russianorca

So you have three Russian companies: White Sphere, White Whale, and Aquatoriya (Aquatoriya’s homepage lists the Sochi Dolphinarium among its facilities, and is named by the Sochi Dolphinarium as one of its partners, which, to complete the circle, also lists White Sphere on its homepage under a section titled “Our Friends). One company builds aquariums, one captures animals for aquariums, and one owns and manages aquariums. That’s a pretty complementary group, and Russian killer whale advocates have taken to calling all of them “White Sphere,” which perhaps helps explain how the world’s attention got focused on White Sphere, the aquarium construction company. But is it true that they have nothing to do with one another, that White Sphere (the construction company) is not connected to the capture and display side of the business? Um, not really.

Continue reading “Who Is White Sphere? The Barely Disguised Conglomerate Behind Russia’s Wild Orca Captures”

More About Russian Orca Captures With Erich Hoyt

Late last week I published an article at Outside Online about recent Russian wild orca captures. In the past year, 8 wild orcas have been captured, potentially presaging a new orca gold rush as marine park development continues in Asia. The article was based on information from author and Whale And Dolphin Conservation Research Fellow Erich Hoyt. Hoyt is co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), which has been studying wild orcas off the Kamchatka peninsula for more than a decade, and has been an important source of news on both wild beluga captures AND (now) wild orca captures.

If you are interested in following Erich’s work, his blog can be found here. The Russian Orca Facebook page can be found here. And if you want to read the first great book about killer whales, I highly recommend Erich’s Orca: The Whale Called Killer (newly released as an e-book).

Erich told me more about the history of Russia’s killer whales and what has been happening with regard to wild captures than I could get into the Outside article (which is doing its best to break Outside Online’s social media sharing record, with more than 4000 Facebook shares so far). So, with his permission, I am publishing the full Q&A I did with him here:

TZ: How long have you been studying the Russia orca populations, and what do we know about them in terms of numbers and types?

Erich Hoyt: I started studying killer whales off northern Vancouver Island in 1973 and spent 10 summers with Northwest Coast orcas, as told in my book Orca: The Whale Called Killer. We were always curious about what might be going on the other side of the Pacific, off Russia. We had also heard that a Japanese aquarium wanted to capture Russian orcas and we hoped we could influence that and maybe stop it. In 1999, I started the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) with a Russian scientist Alexander Burdin and a Japanese researcher Hal Sato. The goal was to engage Russian students and to build an all Russian team that could do the long-term studies needed. From the start, the goals were both science and conservation — we were sponsored by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and the Humane Society International, and soon joined by Animal Welfare Institute and others. We have found two main ecotypes of killer whales: fish-eating (resident-type) and mammal-eating (transient-type) orcas, equivalent in size of pods, physical features and habits to those orcas living off the Northwest Coast of North America. Russian orcas have similar dialect systems, too. Most of our work has been with the fish-eating residents. Using photo-ID we have identified more than 500 killer whales off Kamchatka and about 800 around the Commander Islands.

TZ: What do you think prompted the onset of wild captures in the Sea Of Okhotsk?

Erich Hoyt: Russian captors have been trying to capture orcas for at least 15 years. They finally managed to surround multiple pods off southeast Kamchatka in 2003 including many orcas that we knew well from our studies, only a few days after we had left the field. They may well have waited for us to leave. One young female died in the nets, and another female was hoisted on board and died 13 days after being shipped across Russia to a Black Sea aquarium. Our whole FEROP team was really upset. After that, the captors made a number of failed attempts, but our team managed to get zero quotas for Eastern Kamchatka for the first time, effectively making any captures much more difficult on the Eastern Kamchatka side. Quotas of from 6 to 10 orcas were still issued every year for the Sea of Okhotsk, West of Kamchatka, but logistics there made captures more difficult. A few years ago, however, the Utrish Dolphinarium, the same one that made the previous orca captures off eastern Kamchatka, managed to catch one orca in the Sea of Okhotsk but she later escaped. Then, last year, another group of Russian captors caught a young female orca and brought her into captivity near Vladivostok. She is the one who is being called Narnia and she is still awaiting her captivity assignment. That capture gave the captors confidence that they could do this and — we suppose fueled by international demand that they are no doubt aware of due to beluga sales — they captured 7 orcas in 2 different capture operations in the Sea of Okhotsk from August to October this year.

TZ: What do we know about the outfits engaged in the wild captures? Are they also involved in the wild beluga captures?

Erich Hoyt: Yes, for these 7 orcas this year and the one last year, it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The Sochinskiy Delfinariy is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.

TZ: What methods are they using to make these wild captures? Why are the orcas trucked so far instead of being held on site?

Erich Hoyt: The whales are surrounded by a net in a shallow place close to shore, usually whole pods or even several pods, but we don’t know the precise details in this case. After being contained, the whales to be captured are picked out one at a time and dragged by the tail to the shore and transported from the enclosure — the same as they catch belugas. Young females are highly sought after but some males are of course required too. They move the whales quickly because there is no place to keep them onsite and they are no doubt afraid of sea conditions, so they must transport the orcas to the nearest port. We know from our research that the logistics for doing anything in Russia are difficult and expensive.

TZ: I’ve seen reports of orcas being killed over the years during Russian capture attempts. What do we know about orca deaths during the recent captures or previous captures?

Erich Hoyt: We have confirmed reports of the 2 young females who died in 2003, as I described above. About a year ago, the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) estimated that 5 orcas had died due to captures in the past, but only the 2 from 2003 are officially confirmed. We don’t know if any orcas died during the captures this year.

TZ: You mentioned in an update that Russian scientists and the state ecological commission have recommended to the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency that no permits be allowed in 2014. Are you hopeful the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept that recommendation, and when would you expect a decision?

Erich Hoyt: Scientists from our team and other scientists in Russia who understand killer whale biology have made this recommendation even before the captures occurred this year. The recommendation was based on the fact that orca quotas are being given on the basis of a single management species, when we know that there are at least two distinct ecotypes, the fish-eating residents and the mammal-eating transients, who are separate and need to be evaluated and managed separately. Getting the state ecological commission to endorse this idea was key. Now we hope the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept it. We will know later this year if quotas for capturing killer whales will be issued for 2014.

TZ: There are lots of rumors about where the orcas might go. What, if anything, is known about where the orcas might end up? Do you know anything about the prices they are being offered at?

Erich Hoyt: The rumors are China and Moscow where new facilities are coming on stream. To send the whales to China requires CITES permits and we have now found out that at least 2 CITES permits have been issued. We have no idea of the prices being offered now, but as long as 10-15 years ago, we know that a young female orca in prime condition could be worth $1 million USD. A lot depends on how many people per year pay to get into Sea World in the US, as well as paying to get into the growing number of such facilities in China, Japan and Russia. By last count, more than 120 facilities in these countries exhibit whales and/or dolphins. If there is no demand from the owners of these facilities and from the paying public, the selling price will go down and eventually there may be little or no supply offered for sale. Then the orca trafficking can stop.

Erich Hoyt is Research Fellow with WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project, and author of 20 books including Orca: The Whale Called Killer.

A New Era Of Wild Orca Captures

Photo: Tatiana Ivkovich (Far East Russia Orca Project/ Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

The Russian Far East has started a new beluga and orca gold rush. I’ve got an update, based on information from Erich Hoyt and his Far East Russia Orca Project, about the wave of captures up on Outside Online. Here’s a key point:

Hoyt says that these new wild captures are being conducted by a conglomerate of companies called White Sphere, which captures marine mammals, and builds and operates aquariums in Russia. One aquarium, the Sochinskiy Delfinariy has been identified as the owner of Narnia. Hoyt believes that two of the recently caught orcas, a 4-year-old female and an 8-year-old male, are being offered for sale abroad, perhaps to a Chinese facility, and that at least two of the remaining group of five (one is a mature female; the sex and ages of the others are not known) will be shipped to Moscow soon to be placed in an Oceanarium that is being built at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. Hoyt worries that the mature female might be the mother of the two young orcas being offered for sale abroad, which means that the family group would be broken up.

According to Hoyt, two CITES permits have already been issued, presumably to transport the two young orcas to China. You can read the whole thing here.

Vancouver Aquarium’s Internal Response To Blackfish

What do you think of me being here at the Vancouver Aquarium?

Here is what I am told was a note sent to staff at the Vancouver Aquarium, to help address the issues raised in Blackfish. It is a lot more reasoned than SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish, but at the same time is an interesting insight into the arguments aquariums make about captive marine mammals. 

Vancouver Aquarium has had a long and checkered history, that has included trading in, and keeping captive, killer whales, dolphins and belugas. At the same time, it is a non-profit, and I think is qualitatively different (especially in its current version) than a for-profit entertainment corporation like SeaWorld. That doesn’t mean I think that Vancouver Aquarium should keep cetaceans, or has always acted sincerely or with the best interests of marine mammals in mind. I don’t (and I wish more aquariums would follow the more ethical model of the Monterey Aquarium). But I do think that Vancouver Aquarium is on more solid ground when it comes to trying to make the case for keeping cetaceans captive. So their arguments are worth noting.

That said, what I think is most interesting about Vancouver Aquarium’s response to Blackfish is that it doesn’t really try to make the case that marine mammals are suitable for captivity, and don’t suffer in captivity. Instead, it makes the tried and truthy argument that keeping marine mammals captive helps humans connect with them and care about how they are doing in the wild. In other words, there is a trade-off, and the ends justify the means. I disagree with that calculus, and think that the more people understand the reality of what killer whales and dolphins experience in captivity, the less they will be willing to buy that argument.

Here’s the memo:

Some of you may have seen the documentary “Blackfish” which has been playing in theatres across North America and aired on CNN several times last week. The film is a documentary that focuses on SeaWorld, their display of killer whales and the tragic death of one of their trainers in 2010. SeaWorld chose not to participate in the making of the documentary.

Blackfish attempts to “expose” SeaWorld’s supposed negligence in areas from employee safety to animal welfare largely through personal opinion and allegations made by a handful of former trainers depicted in the film. Some of the footage and testimony is disturbing and there are staff here that can tell you from first-hand experience that caring for killer whales is a demanding occupation, requiring concentration at all times and a comprehensive understanding of killer whale behaviour.

A member of the Senior Staff has spent a great deal of time working with the professional and dedicated team at SeaWorld and has also spent time at all their facilities and with many of their animals. He comments that their facilities are amazing, their animal care expertise is outstanding, the safety training that he has witnessed is first class and, without a doubt, their research has directly and  positively impacted the lives of thousands of marine mammals around the world.

SeaWorld, like all U.S. facilities caring for marine mammals, is licensed to do so by the U.S. federal government and regularly inspected. SeaWorld adheres to the strict standards of all federal and state laws, including the Animal Welfare Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as the professional Standards and Guidelines of the international Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, which surpass government standards for the care of the animals.

Although the film is not about Vancouver Aquarium, it is important to share some of our messaging on killer whales so that you may respond to inquiries as needed.

What happened to the killer whales at Vancouver Aquarium?

Bjossa, the Vancouver Aquarium’s last killer whale, was transferred to SeaWorld in San Diego in April 2001 to provide her with the companionship of other killer whales. Sadly, Bjossa succumbed to a chronic lung infection that she had been battling for two years and passed away on October 8, 2001.

What is the Aquarium’s policy on capturing whales and dolphins?

On September 16, 1996, Vancouver Aquarium became the first aquarium in the world to make a commitment to no longer capture cetaceans from the wild for display and to only care for:

• Cetaceans that were captured before 1996

• Cetaceans that were already being kept in a zoo or aquarium before 1996

• Cetaceans that were born in a zoo or aquarium

• Cetaceans that were rescued from the wild and rehabilitated, but deemed un-releasable by the appropriate government authorities

Why have animals in aquariums?

Aquariums perform a vital role in educating people about aquatic conservation and contribute to critical research to conserve aquatic life. Seeing animals in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for connecting with our oceans and animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and engagement that leads to positive behavioral changes.

More information: http://www.vanaqua.org/learn/aquafacts/the-aquarium/whales-in-aquariums

Nightly Reader: November 1, 2012

1) If Only: I’m always wary of stories that turn on the phrase “according to a recent study.” But when the study suggests that vegetarians and vegans live an average of eight years longer than the meat-eating general population, I am happy to propagate it without too much scrutiny. Plus, of course, you have these folks. Even meat-eaters who don’t care about animal suffering or the environment can get behind living longer.

2) Beluga Basics: A(nother) deep dive into the arguments, politics, and economics of the Georgia Aquarium’s proposed import of 18 wild Russian belugas. I don’t expect it, but it will be an amazing reversal if NOAA denies the permit.

3) A Man And A Walrus: Former Marineland trainer Phil Demers tells the story of his relationship with Smooshi, and how concern for her well-being drove him to speak out against the conditions she lives in.

BONUS VIDEO: Here’s Smooshi in action.

The Life Of Kiska

I’m developing an iron law of marine park reporting, which is: the more detail you know the worse marine parks sound. Rarely do additional facts make you feel better about marine parks.

This law just received serious reinforcement by a devastating report in Canada’s The Star newspaper about the life of Kiska, the lone remaining killer whale at Marineland in Ontario.

Marineland has been in the news recently, over animal abuse allegations by former staffers. This new report does nothing to change the dismal picture of Marineland they painted.

Here’s what The Star reports on Kiska:

Kiska, the killer whale, swims alone in her pool at Marineland, often followed by a trail of her own blood.

Her tail has been bleeding off and on since July but has been getting progressively worse, according to Christine Santos, who has been one of Kiska’s primary trainers. She described the bleeding as “gushing” last week….

[snip]…

The Star obtained recent video of Kiska showing a blood trail from cuts in her tail. Once one of Marineland’s best show animals, Santos said she now spends her days swimming listlessly and scratching parts of her body against the sides and sharp fibreglass grates that run the circumference of her Friendship Cove pool.

Treating her is difficult because Kiska, about 37, has refused to go into the medical pool for the past month. Her behaviour has been “breaking down for some time,” said Santos. She won’t even present her tail for blood samples.

Santos believes there aren’t enough trainers to give Kiska and 39 beluga whales enough attention at Friendship and Arctic Coves.

Santos was fired Wednesday. She said she was asked to sign a document that included a statement she’d never seen animal abuse at Marineland. She didn’t sign because “it didn’t feel right.”

Marineland called Santos’ allegations inaccurate and false. Here’s a photo of Kiska, trailing blood, published by The Star (click image for full size).

The Star story also has some pretty gruesome details about a beluga transfer that went wrong:

Other whales have been bloodied at the Niagara Falls tourist park. On Apr. 11, 2012, after female beluga Charmin was left on a trailer when a crane jammed during a move to another pool, photos show the area soaked with blood…

[snip]…

Last April, staffers moved two belugas, Tofino, a male, and Charmin from Friendship Cove to the performing stadium pool. At the end of Charmin’s move, the crane set to lift her in a sling over to the pool jammed, and she was stuck on the flatbed, her tail thrashing against the metal slats and edges of the trailer, according to former senior trainer Phil Demers.

“It was one of the worst days of my life,” says Demers, who helped in the move. “It went on for at least an hour. . . . There was blood on Charmin, on the ground, on the side of the pool, on the pads — it was sprayed all over. The worst, though, was that she lay there all that time with the pressure of her heavy weight (about 1,350 kilograms) on her internal organs — so bad.”

Here’s a photo of Charmin’s bloody transfer (full set is here). Is it something that  NOAA and the rest of us should keep in mind when considering what sort of stresses could be involved in Georgia Aquarium’s proposed transfer of 18 belugas from northern Russia to Atlanta, and then on to SeaWorld, Shedd Aquarium, and Mystic Aquarium?

Beluga Charmin

All the staffer accounts that have been leaking out of Marineland this summer certainly paint Marineland as a poorly managed park where animals suffer daily (video here).

It’s possible that Marineland is, in fact, the worst park in North America. But who knows for sure? How much do we really know about all the other marine parks? It is not until insiders step forward and put the facts out in the light, or the parks open up to real scrutiny, that we can really know the reality.

(h/t to JF for alerting me to this story)