Support Local News.

Please support our work by subscribing today.

USDA criticizes aquarium's care of beluga whale who died

Mystic — A report by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors has criticized how Mystic Aquarium cared for a 5-year-old male beluga whale in the final hours before his death last August.

The report states "that in the eight hours prior to his death, staff members conducting the overnight watch documented multiple observations of abnormal behavior and did not alert the attending Veterinarian. The frequency of these abnormal behaviors markedly increased during this time compared to what had been observed previously."

Named Havok, he was one of five beluga whales that were transferred from Marineland Canada to the aquarium last year. He died in the early morning of Friday, Aug. 6. Another one of the transferred whales, a female, died this February.

The transfer was opposed by several animal rights groups, who argued the transport would endanger the whales, separate them from their social groups and violate the intent of a 2019 Canadian law aimed at phasing out the captivity of whales, dolphins and other cetaceans. The import permit from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service prohibits the animals from being bred for at least five years or included in public performances. The aquarium, though, has said the whales were living in poor, overcrowded conditions in Canada and the transfer would aid in research being done to protect wild beluga populations.  

The report states that there were numerous instances of Havok rolling and shaking his pectoral fins along with three instances of "gaspy" breaths and seven instances of water seen coming out of his blowhole in the eight hours before his death. There were also 10 instances of "active bleeding" from Havok's rostrum, or beak, recorded during the two hours prior to his death.

"This increased frequency of abnormal behaviors constitutes a problem; can indicate rapid deterioration of the animal's health and may result in prolonged distress. Although staff members were recording their observations of Havok's behaviors, the veterinarian was not contacted during this eight-hour timeframe until Havok's death at 0550 hours (5:50 a.m.). The facility failed to provide adequate veterinary care by not using appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat diseases during Havok's last eight hours," the report states.

On Thursday, the aquarium issued a statement that in part said, "while we do not agree with some of the findings, we respect USDA's feedback and are always working to continuously improve. We are committed to providing world-class care to all the animals that call Mystic Aquarium home."

It added that it is "addressing all issues raised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a new inspection report was issued Wednesday with no findings or concerns from USDA. Mystic Aquarium appreciates USDA's vigilance and aligns with the welfare of all animals being of utmost importance."

Wednesday's report involved a USDA inspection on April 5 and 6 that found "no non compliant items." 

Earlier this year, the aquarium said it established three shifts of animal care and new operating procedures for communication, handling of animals with vision issues, and facility upgrades.

The aquarium also said that another one of the whales from Canada, a female who had been seriously ill last summer, "has been receiving 24/7 around-the-clock care for the last several months, has made significant improvements and continues to be clinically well."

"With healthy energy levels, increasing weight, and normalizing bloodwork, the veterinarian team is optimistic about her recovery," it stated.

A review of aquarium records by the USDA fund numerous instances in which Havok injured himself in the pools where he and the other whales from Canada were being kept with the aquarium's three resident whales. 

In one instance in June 2021, Havok, who recently had been treated for eye problems, was in a pool when a visitor dropped an object into the water. Employees then closed the gate to the holding pool while they attempted to retrieve the object with a net. Havok was startled by the net and swam toward an adjacent holding pool after the gate was shut. Although there were dark hatch markings on the clear acrylic gate, Havok swam into the gate and reopened rostrum wounds and sustained a new wound on his upper left mandible. 

"The handling of the whales during the response to the foreign object falling into the pool was not done as carefully as possible to ensure the safety of all the animals, including Havok who had known vision impairment, a history of swimming into habitat walls, and a disposition for being 'spooked,' per his behavioral records and previous facility's medical records," the report states.

The report said aquarium records also contained multiple entries that document injuries Havok sustained on the surfaces of the enclosure.

On June 23, 2021, he injured himself in the medical pool where the posts for the device that lifts animals out of the water are located, resulting in a 4-by-4-inch wound to the portion of his body that supported his tail fin, which required continuing treatment. In July, the report states, staff noted the whale "appears to have reduced vision, often colliding with habitat wall" and sustained abrasions.

The USDA also found there are times during the day when the holding pool lacked sufficient shelter to protect the animals from direct sunlight. Records contained entries for the application of sunscreen to the whales from June through the end of September 2021.  Havok's medical record included an entry on July 12, 2021, that described the presence of solar dermatitis with skin ulceration surrounding his blowhole and solar skin disease on his head. Records also documented that the five whales have eye issues that can be exacerbated by direct sunlight.

The report states "that marine mammals that are kept outdoors shall be provided protection from the weather or from direct sunlight. Exposure to direct sunlight can adversely affect the animals' health resulting in eye or skin damage."

The report also found eight consecutive days last summer when the level of ozone, a gas that can be harmful at high levels, in the water exceeded that which is considered acceptable and required immediate attention. It stated elevated levels of oxidants in the water, such as ozone, are harmful to marine mammals and may cause irritation to eyes, skin and the respiratory system.

It said the issue was addressed by the aquarium prior to the inspection for the report.

Darien-based Friends of Animals, one of the groups that opposed the whales' transfer last year, on Thursday criticized the aquarium's care of Havok.

"Mystic deceives the public by using research to justify importing belugas and its fundraising efforts. The public needs to wake up and see that the staff at Mystic doesn't even know what to do when an animal is dying in front of them, let alone conduct research," said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. "Keeping whales in bathtubs for photo ops is not research or conservation unless you are researching how to make more money."

She added "It's long past time for Connecticut to ban importing whales and breeding in captivity" and added "game-changing research to help belugas in the wild .... is being done by studying them in the wild." 

"The legal system failed these belugas, but we still have the court of public opinion. It's time to redefine family entertainment as something other than exploiting animals," Feral said. "Such captivity strips wild animals of their dignity, and in the case of these belugas, it ended their lives."

j.wojtas@theday.com

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments

TRENDING

PODCASTS