Morgan In Captivity

I was going through computer files the other day, and I came across an archive of stuff I have on Morgan at Loro Parque. I have always felt a sadness for Morgan, picked up off the Dutch coast in 2010 and now at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. (I wrote about Loro Parque in 2011, because that is where trainer Alexis Martinez was killed by a SeaWorld killer whale just a few months before Dawn Brancheau was killed in Florida).

You can read all about Morgan, and how she came to be at Loro Parque, here. The story has a lot of twists and turns, but the bottom line is that Morgan is a recently wild killer while who now finds herself owned by SeaWorld, and with her valuable wild DNA likely to become part of SeaWorld’s captive breeding mill.

Anyhow, I started clicking on some of the videos of Morgan (they are from 2013) and for some reason this video perfectly captured for me the banality and tedium of a once wild life that is now experienced in a confined pool, and devoted to entertaining holiday crowds. Teaching Morgan how to wave her tail just seems so pathetic and lame. And her energy level and affect seems to indicate she feels the same way. Good times.

Animated Activism: Killer Whale Captivity For Children

Animator Joey Cheers (with Fishy Thom and Teon Simmons) concocts a beguiling video to speak to young minds. (h/t Marineland In Depth)

Morgan’s Fate At Loro Parque

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A decision on whether Morgan, the lost young female orca, should remain at Loro Parque is due anytime, and could be released this Wednesday.

The arguments over Morgan have always been based on two completely different, and contradictory, narratives of her life at Loro Parque. Today, over on The Dodo, I took a look at what both sides claim regarding Morgan’s well-being, and how a pregnancy is the big wild card, and would seal her fate if it happens.

Here’s a key part of the story:

Loro Parque, in a statement e-mailed in response to a request for comment, calls Visser’s argument “erroneous and misleading,” as well as “emotionally charged. The statement goes on to try and rebut each of Visser’s claims one by one, and dismisses Visser’s work as an “animal activist opinion piece.” For Morgan, the statement flatly states, “negative welfare conditions do not exist.”

“I’m not an activist. I am a scientist who happens to care about the welfare of animals,” Visser responds. “There is a big difference.” Moreover, Visser’s research and conclusions about Morgan’s life at Loro Parque have won an interesting advocate in Jeff Foster, who spent decades catching killer whales, dolphins, and other animals for SeaWorld and other marine parks. Foster knows a lot about killer whales and how they handle captivity, and is not opposed to captivity for killer whales if they are well-integrated into a stable environment. After observing Loro Parque’s videos of Morgan he was initially skeptical that her experience at Loro Parque was as negative as Visser believes. But based on two trips to observe Morgan (the most recent was last Fall), Foster says he fully agrees that the group of SeaWorld killer whales at Loro Parque is dysfunctional, that Morgan has not been well-integrated, and that Morgan is suffering. “It’s pretty obvious. She’s crying out in distress almost all the time,” Foster says. “You usually don’t hear those vocals from animals unless they are really in distress. The only time I’ve heard them is when we were catching whales and separating them from their families.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Here’s a brief video, showing Morgan’s isolation during a show at Loro Parque earlier this year.

Morgan’s Unusual Training At Loro Parque

From what I am told, Morgan spends a lot of time alone, and has very little involvement in the Loro Parque orca show (spending many shows alone in the med pool). But as this video shows, Loro Parque continues to experiment with different training systems for Morgan, and is working on show tricks. This appears to be a visual system of letting Morgan know when she has performed correctly (known as a “bridge”). If I get more detail or insight into this bridging system I will post it.

UPDATE: I received an e-mail from someone who follows Morgan’s situation closely, which adds detail to Morgan’s training program. Part of the information is based on a presentation about Morgan at the recent IMATA conference (which also produced this).

In the IMATA presentation they described the plan they have to develop a bridge for Morgan so that she can participate in shows. 

The light on a pole you see being used in the video is a way to teach Morgan to connect the original bridge (hand signal) with the light bridge so that she will eventually just respond to the light bridge. The intention is to install lights in the walls at various places around the pools, which will be controlled by a trainer holding some kind of a remote. The idea is that Morgan will have a visual underwater bridge that is visible to her from anywhere in the pool to let her know she’s done what was asked and can return to the trainer. At the moment, wherever Morgan performs in the pool, there has to be a trainer at that part of the pool to bridge her which somewhat limits her performances. When I was at Loro Parque in November of last year, I saw Morgan slide out at the end of a show on cue, but one of the trainers appeared to have forgotten this and there was no one at the slide out to bridge her. She obediently stayed in her pose while looking (in my opinion) a little unsure of what to do next until a trainer had run around the perimeter of the pool to be within her vision for the hand bridge.

Also, Morgan does follow the other whales if they are sent on a behavior together. So, the example being used in this video was Morgan and Tekoa sent on a bow (jump) together. Sent alone, Morgan did not respond to a whistle bridge, only a visual. But when sent with Tekoa, and bridged with only a whistle, Morgan followed his example when he returned to the trainer upon hearing the bridge.

One final detail, for Morgan-aholics, in the IMATA presentation Morgan’s size was updated as 15.45 feet in length and 3,570 lbs.

Anyone else have any insights, or more information about the IMATA presentation on Morgan?

Another Take On Morgan The PR Star

A few weeks back, I posted a video of Morgan that was created by Loro Parque, along with some quick analysis.

Here’s the video again:

One element of the video that caught people’s attention was the apparent use of a whistle to bridge Morgan, which bears on the question of Morgan’s alleged deafness.

Bridgette Pirtle, a former trainer at SeaWorld Texas, got in touch with her view of the video, and graciously allowed me to share it here:

[UPDATED] A few observations…  LoroParque chose some interesting footage to use to show how “well” Morgan is doing. Particularly towards the end, that video appears to give stronger evidence for how she is not acclimating well. The white water looks like displacement not play. Those wide eyes in the closing frames are consistent with behaviors seen in whales anticipating more acts of dominance directed towards her, not of one settling into the hierarchy. Her eyes are of a whale tight and uncomfortable in her social environment.  I understand Morgan has a unique history along with some physical disabilities that further distance her from a “regular” orca, but those behaviors are far from that of the ” happy-go-lucky” captive norm.  That’s a little more like throwing a Mizzou fan in the middle of KU country. That Tiger is blending in anonymously, hoping to make it through without any altercation.  All the while, that Tiger is always watching his tail.  The behaviors observed in this video are more consistent with those of learned helplessness rather than proof of her successful acclimation within the social environment of LoroParque.

In regards to earlier comments made suggesting a possibility of the trainers continuing to use auditory stimuli amidst claims of Morgan’s loss of hearing, I feel that this isn’t sufficient evidence to support any speculations of the conflicting claims of poor hearing yet continuing to use the bridge whistle.  The session with Jose and Morgan at the slideout isn’t a good indicator of the possibility of a whistle being used as a bridge.  Audio is edited and a trainer placing a bridge in his or her mouth doesn’t always mean guarenteed bridge.  I was always “chewing on my whistle.”  In fact, there is a video on YouTube with me and Halyn doing a hand target learn session for campers where I also go into explaining my habit to the group.  I feel the more noteworthy points to take home from this video are that actions viewed are not quite lining up with the words being heard. Although the audio is edited over, I can tell you from the years I worked with him, Jose definitely was just as bad as me at “chewing on the whistle.” Most likely that would get chopped up to a trainer’s superstitious bad habit. There had been a video on YouTube with Rafa using his bridge while working Morgan that would better prove they don’t even really believe their own spin on Morgan’s deafness. It actually may have been one of the first installments of LP’s promo porn regarding Morgan. 🙂

Regardless of whether or not there’s a presence of auditory cues or that there is any substance to Morgan’s situation being compared to that of the whale euthanized by a shotgun blast, I feel the footage incorporated into this LoroParque PSA isn’t necessarily in line with the idealistic image they hope to achieve.  Killer whale social structures are extremely dynamic and complex.  Morgan’s unique variables contribute even more variables and complexities into this already delicate balance.  I would think even an untrained eye would be able to identify the social happenings observed here as being anything but an all-in-all acceptance within her new pod.

This is like Kremlinology, from the bad old days. But it’s nice to have some real experts providing the analysis.

More Loro Parque PR Porn

Yet another video about Morgan, and her life at Loro Parque.

Morgan sure looks like she is living the life, doesn’t she? Let’s read between the lines.

As former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre notes:  “it DOES appear (although no audio confirmation) that a trainer is using a whistle to bridge Morgan at about he 54 second mark. This is contrary to claims that she is deaf.”

Loro Parque trainer Claudia Volhardt also mentions that Morgan is being taught how to pee into a cup, so her hormonal cycles can be monitored. That is a key procedure when it comes to trying to breed Morgan, and Morgan offers SeaWorld (which listed Morgan as a SeaWorld asset when it filed the papers for its recent IPO) extremely valuable wild DNA for its captive breeding program.

Finally, Volhardt takes the opportunity to mention the stranded orca that was shot in the head in Norway in April, contrasting its fate to that of Morgan. On the one hand, it is a fair point since Morgan was “rescued” rather than “euthanized.” On the other hand, topping a standard in which stranded orcas are shot in the head is setting the bar pretty low. And I am pretty sure that none of the release plans proposed for Morgan include a rifle.

All in all, a pretty sophisticated PR effort, aimed at making the public feel okay about Morgan being at Loro Parque.

The Morgan Decision

Apparently the judge bought the argument that Morgan is being used for research and education. Guess he or she has never been to a Loro Parque Orca Ocean show. I have, and what amazed me was that there was not a single fact about wild orcas in the show. Not one.

According to this story (and Google Translate):

Relocation orca Morgan not unlawfully

AMSTERDAM – The relocation of orca Morgan of the Dolphinarium in Harderwijk to Loro Parque, a park in Tenerife, was not unlawful.

Photo: Reuters

That the court in Amsterdam Thursday determined. The case was brought by the Orca Coalition, an alliance of animal activists, who wanted the animal in nature would be released.

Morgan was severely weakened in 2010 found in the Wadden Sea. The animal was brought to the Dolphinarium to recover. In 2011 it was announced that Morgan to Loro Parque in Tenerife should move, where all five other killer whales lived.

Then State Secretary Henk Bleacher gave a permit for the removal of Morgan to Tenerife. This was according to the Orca Coalition never happen.

The permit should only be issued if the goal was their research or teaching was that the protection or conservation of the species was intended. This is according to the court case. The park on Tenerife conducts research and performs an educational function, the judge said.

The Court sees no reason to believe that the welfare of Morgan danger in Tenerife. The Orca Coalition may, if they disagree, a case in Spain started.

PLUS: Comment from The Blackfish.

When (Not) Seeing Is Important

As regular readers will know, I like to say “Seeing Is Important” because seeing helps people understand (and believe) the reality of what goes on in the world, whether at a marine park or a factory farm.

So I was struck by the following tidbit in Elizabeth Batt’s report on legal threats made against Dr. Ingrid Visser over her reports about orca Morgan’s experience at Loro Parque.

This is the gate at the entrance to Loro Parque’s Orca Ocean as it was last June (and was when I was there last year):

And this is the same gate in July 2011 (and presumably today):

Notice a difference? Visser has used her camera to tell Morgan’s story at Loro Parque in devastating detail. So Loro Parque took measures to make it hard or impossible for visitors to see what is going on with the orca outside of shows.

It’s an obvious response. But when an industry or corporation is blocking access, and becoming less transparent, it is a sign that all is not well inside, and that the industry is afraid of what the public might think if they truly understood what goes on behind closed doors (and hastily erected fences). For that sort of business “Not Seeing Is Important.”

Batt publishes one other “A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words” picture taken by Visser. It shows SeaWorld’s Chief Zoological officer, Brad Andrews, taking in the orca show alongside Kiessling.

SeaWorld, despite protestations to the contrary, has long had a very close working relationship with Loro Parque, and helped launch its orca program. If Morgan is used for breeding it will bbe very interesting–and telling–to see where the calves go.

Anyhow, I doubt that fences or legal threats can slow Visser down. And her work is making a difference, judging from the number of people who have signed this petition calling for Morgan’s release. The Dutch court will issue a ruling on Morgan’s fate on Dec. 13. Whether it calls for the revisitation of the Dutch ministry decision to send Morgan to Loro Parque or not, Visser will have accomplished something very important simply by making so many people aware of Morgan’s story.


Orca Morgan’s Hearing

One of the contentious underlying debates regarding Morgan and whether she should be released to a sea pen, or the wild, rather than spend a life at Loro Parque, is whether she is deaf, or has impaired hearing.

Obviously, impaired hearing would be an issue for an orca in the wild, and so this question is critical to whether Morgan would be a good candidate for release. Loro  Parque has repeatedly said she has hearing issues, and now they have released two videos, one discussing auditory tests, and the other the visual bridge they have developed for Morgan’s training.

UPDATE: And here is the audiogram being administered…

Here’s the translation of what the Loro Parque blog is saying about the tests:

International scientists confirm that the orca Morgan, rescued in Holland in 2010 and moved to the park in 2011 at the request of a Dutch judge, suffers a hearing loss that could be very severe and even absolute. This is the conclusion reached by the experts having made multiple hearing tests that took place last week at the facilities of Orca Ocean.

The research team, composed of experts from the Netherlands Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem study ( IMARES ), the National Endowment for marine mammals and also U.S. Office of Naval Research for the U.S. Navy (U.S. Navy ), studied the hearing of several copies of orca we have in the park. As a result found that they all could record brain responses to sound stimuli, except Morgan.This study confirms the suspicions of our team of trainers and veterinarians, who had warned that the animal did not seem to respond to sound signals.

This type of test, which consists in detecting brain waves in response to the issuance of a sound, is routinely used to determine the hearing of dolphins and small cetaceans. However, its application to the study of orcas sound pioneered the world, since there is only one precedent duplicate fourteen years ago.

With the confirmation of this deaf coaches continue to make visual adaptations of the system they use to communicate with Morgan. With the advice of specialists in animal behavior from the Free University of Berlin, will develop new lines of work that will allow any inconvenience Morgan further.

I hope that the report that is generated from this effort is released publicly.

The Case To Free Morgan

Next Thursday, Nov. 1, three Dutch judges will revisit last year’s decision to allow a rehabbing orca called Morgan to be shipped to Loro Parque in the Canary islands (instead of being released back into the wild).  The case is high profile, with Jean Michel Cousteau joining Morgan’s cause. But two of Morgan’s most persistent and dedicated advocates have been Dr. Ingrid Visser and Lara Pozzato of the Free Morgan Foundation.

In advance of the hearing, Dr. Visser has prepared and submitted a detailed brief arguing that Morgan’s life at Loro Parque is both detrimental to her welfare and in violation of the conditions under which she was sent to Loro Parque. It is both compelling and sobering, and you can read it right here.

Loro Parque, where trainer Alexis Martinez was killed in 2009, has long been a troubled environment for orcas. I urge you to read Visser’s full report for an extremely comprehensive look at Morgan’s life there, as well as visit the Free Morgan Foundation website for more details on Morgan’s history, and the current effort to free her.

Here are some pictures included in the report, along with the captions describing what you are seeing:

Figure 6. Morgan (head out of water, on right) as she is rammed and pushed backwards by the two female orca, Skyla and Kohana. Note the amount of water being displaced as Morgan is forced backwards.

Figure 7. The full-frame photograph of Figure 6. Note the trainers standing to the right. During all the attacks recorded by the author the trainers were present, yet ignored them.

Figure 8. Skyla (female orca, left, obscured by gate) rams Morgan (right) and partially lifts her out of the water. NOTE: Morgan’s lower caudal peduncle is concave from force of ramming (at impact site). Water is displaced at impact site & on Morgan’s left (right of frame). Morgan weighs 1364 kg, requiring her be to hit with a substantial force, in order for her to be lifted out of the water this high.

Figure 11. During a training session, Morgan (partially obscured behind rail), rises out of the water in an attempt to avoid a bite from one of the two orca in the tank with her (Skyla and Kohana). This photo is one of a sequence of images, showing the open mouth and teeth progressed along Morgan’s body as she rose up and then slid down, to try to avoid the conflict.

Figure 23. Morgan exhibits a hypertrophic scar on her lower jaws, most likely a result of repeatedly banging her chin on the concrete walls. Such stereotypic behaviour can become self mutilating to the point where the subcutaneous injury can become painful and itchy. Further damage to Morgan’s rostrum through stereotypic behaviour inflicted on (2 July 2012). The trainers (on the day she inflicted these wounds and after they were inflicted) commanded her to push a ball repeatedly on the end of rostrum, in order to receive her allocated fish. Also note that the tips of Morgan’s teeth are being worn off from chewing on the concrete (also see Figure 24).

These are only a few of the pictures and diagrams. There is much, much more about Morgan’s life at Loro Parque in the report.

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