Over the past few years, the more I heard about the Animal Care staff at SeaWorld, the more I wanted to be able to hear their stories. They seemed to be involved in everything: births, deaths, rescues, illnesses, transports. If anyone could add texture to what we know about the lives of the animals at marine parks it was Animal Care workers.
Over the past ten months I have been speaking with three SeaWorld Animal Care veterans, who worked at SeaWorld Florida and SeaWorld Texas (I also spoke with a fourth, but for reasons never explained, he/she just dropped off the radar after telling me some amazing stories; sadly I couldn’t use them). Their tenures spanned a period from the late 1980s through 2006, and they had plenty of interesting and revealing tales to tell.
You can read them all here.
One of the most surprising and intriguing new revelations was supplied by Jim Horton, the most experienced of the trio. He told me about the existence of a ring knife, a small blade which slips over a finger and can be used to cut open and eviscerate a stillborn calf that is stuck in the mother’s birth canal. It is a procedure with a noble aim–to save the life of the mother. But if you imagine the experience of the mother–suspended in a sling or otherwise immobilized as a person inserts a hand up inside her vagina, eviscerates her dead calf, and starts pulling its internal organs out–it is at the same time grotesque.
Horton sent me a picture of what the ring knife he was describing looked like:
SeaWorld’s Fred Jacobs confirmed the existence of this knife, and explained that the procedure in which it is used is called a “fetotomy.”
“Our veterinary medical care program is identical to that found in referral hospitals and veterinary medical teaching hospitals around the United States. We practice comprehensive medical and surgical care. That includes obstetrical care and, rarely, surgery to reduce fetal dystocia. The tools used for veterinary obstetrics are similar to those used in human medicine. The instrument you’re referring to is used in a procedure known as fetotomy.”
Horton told me he was pretty sure that a fetotomy was performed on the stuck, stillborn calf that killed Gudrun in 1996 (the calf was forcibly removed with the help of a winch, tearing Gudrun up, which led to her death days later). But he couldn’t 100% remember, in the chaos and stress of trying to save Gudrun’s life, actually seeing the calf being eviscerated.
Asked about Gudrun, SeaWorld’s Fred Jacobs would not confirm that the calf was eviscerated, but did note that instruments and procedures were used to try and help Gudrun pass the fetus:
“On rare occasions veterinarians have to help an animal pass a fetus. With very large animals like whales, elephants, rhinos, horses and cows, there are specifically designed veterinary obstetric instruments. The goal of any such procedure is to save the life of the mother and quickly ease any discomfort she would have as a result of the stillbirth. The tools used by SeaWorld are identical to those used by large animal veterinarians.”
Even more intriguing to me about the existence of this sort of knife was that it offers a potential explanation for something that has puzzled me for years: rumors and tips that the 2010 death of Gudrun’s daughter, Taima, also from a stuck stillborn, was especially bloody, and involved some sort of operation to try and remove the calf.
Some speculated that some form of modified Cesarean had been attempted. But that didn’t really make sense since it seems almost impossible that an orca mother could survive an intrusive operation so there would be little to gain.
However, an attempted fetotomy, especially if that is a procedure that SeaWorld uses to try and deal with fetal dystocia (as Jacobs acknowledges), could well explain what happened with Taima and her calf. We’ll have to wait for an eyewitness account, or a miraculous release of SeaWorld records, to know for sure. But it is an intriguing potential explanation to questions about Taima’s death have been a bit of a mystery.