Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XV No. 4 - October 2006


Beluga Misadventures

By William Rossiter


Turner died in early September. The beluga was only 13, and had been undergoing treatment for six weeks for an infection of unknown origin at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, WA. On loan since 1998 from San Antonio Sea World, Turner also had a chronic kidney condition. Turner might have suffered and died from similar issues if he was a wild, free whale, but if the necropsy shows the infection was related to his captivity, perhaps stress-related, it may be very, very hard to get a copy.

How is it possible that disease and death claim captives at about the same rate as in the wild? Captives have guaranteed food, water quality, medical care, and much else, while wild whales and dolphins suffer predators, parasites, hurricanes, famines, habitat changes, pollution, and a host of other threats. The answer is captivity-induced stress versus freedom. The industry promotes their veterinary care as a plus for the animals on display, but much of that care is an effort to heal the effects of stress on the captives.

The stresses of a free life are different, but cetaceans have evolved to deal with them. Freedom empowers wild cetaceans to dodge the threats and enjoy life. They don't even know what freedom is until they lose it, living the rest of their lives in a tank with strangers, where there is no "normal", nothing to dodge, day in and day out the same. The heavy toll of captivity-induced stress questions the value of the never-ending debate over wild versus captive mortality rates. There are too many case histories to dispute that to some cetaceans, like many other "aware" creatures including us, to be captive is to die.

But what about the captive dolphins that seem happy? Perhaps this is just the dolphin equivalent of the human "Stockholm Syndrome". The counter-intuitive evidence from numerous human hostages is that some captive people begin to sympathize with their captors, and in time even support them. Some have been reluctant to be rescued, and others have refused to testify against their captors. Ignore the industry retort: "There is no evidence!" They don't dare to look for any.

A bit of good news is that Gasper is recovering, thanks to constant care by the Georgia Aquarium. The male beluga imported from the decrepit La Feria rollercoaster-dolphinarium in Mexico City has gained 330 pounds since last October. After he was diagnosed in April with the bone disease osteomyelitis, in addition to skin lesions already under treatment, Gasper was separated from the other four belugas and removed from public view, ostensibly to facilitate frequent treatments. By June the isolation was modified with a gate that allowed the other four belugas to enter his smaller pool when they chose to, but no long term companionships have formed.

The bad news is that NMFS wants to ignore that Gasper and Nico had been captured in Russia. Their shadowed past includes the brutal, inhumane but officially permitted Russian beluga capture operations that should have made their import to the US illegal under animal welfare laws. However, their import was proposed and promoted for humane reasons only, a one-time "rescue" necessary for their survival from a truly horrible situation. But when the time came NMFS issued an import permit and supporting documents minimizing humane concerns. The permit may have been intended instead to facilitate future imports of Russian-caught belugas or their progeny. An open door for Russian beluga imports would persuade the Russians to make more brutal captures, making NMFS complicit in future deaths and suffering. NMFS chose to ignore video and other evidence of the incredibly brutal Russian capture operation, insisting that specific evidence had to be submitted for each beluga up for an import permit. NMFS knows that evidence about any captures is hard to get, and much import data is incomplete.

CSI had supported the Georgia Aquarium beluga import as a humane necessity, truly a rescue, and we are grateful to the new facility for trying to heal Casper. But to put it simply, we were misled by trusted sources, perhaps themselves manipulated, while some other, more pessimistic NGOs fought the imports solely on the basis of the future implications. In any case, the import happened and now we're all preparing for future legal actions when and if another beluga with a Russian past comes up for importation, for example from Canada. Meanwhile Russian belugas are now suffering all over the globe.

Bahrain seems an unlikely place to find belugas, until you consider how exotic they would be to people in a desert country. A white whale swimming in water cooler than most local people could imagine, in an air conditioned building offering relief from the heat; belugas, we find, are scattered all over the Middle East. And they all came from the inhumane Russian captures, making at least some people very rich in the chain that leads to Moscow. Many Middle East countries are not CITES member states. Add in the universal language of money, some cultural variables, sparse animal welfare laws, and unreliable or incomplete records, and the potential for many ex-Russian belugas to have lived and died in the desert is terrible.

Becca's epiphany came at the Dolphin Park in Marina Cornish, Manama, Bahrain. We cannot use her real name for fear of repercussions to her, but she had gone to the park with some friends, having "booked a session of swimming with dolphins". Instead they were appalled and disgusted to witness a beluga whale, bottlenose dolphin and Stellar sea lion crammed into a small indoor pool, made to perform idiotic tricks. She knew instinctively that this was wrong and inhumane for the animals and she had to do something. She reached out by email, searching for anyone who could help. "I have to do something, I couldn't and can't believe the place exists, when I visited with four of my friends it was supposed to be a surprise treat for their visit and when we came out we were all in silence, just gobsmacked and mortified."

Bahrain dolphin display pool

Can you see the enclosed section at the far left of the display pool in this photograph of the Dolphin Park (courtesy of WDCS)? This is what Becca meant when she said: "The two dolphins are kept in approx 8 ft. by 5 ft. indoor pen (together) inside a swimming pool, the amount of space given to them was barely enough to allow them to move and was absolutely disgusting to see. Even though they advertise swimming with Dolphins, the creatures are so unhappy that they cannot allow people to swim with them any longer - they were trying to bite us, and succeeded in biting my friend when he went too close ... I have reason to believe that they are also being abused, as they had many scars and markings to their flesh. They allow tourists to swim only with a Beluga whale, kept in a smaller separate pen. This creature was not unfriendly but also had a lot of scars and marks, the trainer also stood on its back while it swam. There was also a seal [a Stellar sea lion, locally called a "sea-cat"] kept separately, who on first glance looked dead. It is under-nourished and badly treated as are the other creatures. I was so sorry to have even stepped inside this establishment and in any way support this terrible cruelty to these poor creatures, but we truly did not realise just how bad the whole thing is until it was too late."

Within days several NGOs were working together to help the animals at the park and Becca. A coalition letter of concern was sent by Britain's Marine Connection, on behalf of CSI and others, to His Highness, Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, The Prime Minister of Bahrain. The Minister ordered authorities to review the issues with the Bahrain Dolphin Park, and affirmed Bahrain's "commitment to a broad-ranging program of animal welfare." The investigation that followed Becca's alert reviewed evidence of belugas in several countries, and the frequent shuttling of bottlenose dolphins between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Two of three dolphins imported to Bahrain from Russia in 1998 died within weeks. Two more were shipped in 1999. Another has died since, but no records show when or how. One beluga simply vanished enroute to Egypt. Another went to a rich patron's home, instead of being returned to Russia because of irregularities in the records. The Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin shown below, courtesy of WDCS, was listed as from Russia, but may have been captured in Saudi Arabia.

A fire at the Bahrain Dolphin Park in early August killed a Stellar sea lion that was locked in a cage without water, and destroyed much of the facility. The surviving animals were scattered. The beluga was returned to Moscow, where the Utrish dolphinarium's Dr. Lev Mukhamertov said he might use it for Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT), but it could show up anywhere. At this writing it is unclear whether the Dolphin Park will be restored, or display belugas.

As an update to our last newsletter, the 13 belugas held in sea pens in Vladivostok's harbor still languish there, evidence of powerful influences in Moscow that prevented them from being moved to "better" conditions. There are at least 23 Russian belugas on display in China, where renewed interest may take some of Vladivostok's belugas.

Let's return to Becca. She's not an "activist", but she witnessed something wrong and took responsibility to get help. She also accepted the need to be careful, but that her personal risks from her involvement were secondary to the animals' plight. This is why Becca is a wondrous example for us all. Her search also rekindled informal and cooperative efforts by many organizations, superb examples of how effective we can be working together.

But why aren't more people like her? Every day, all around the world, thousands of people pay exorbitant fees to sit and watch as dolphins and whales perform exciting stunts on the command of trainers. Vacuous parents rest in the sun or air conditioned room, grateful just to sit. Without questioning, they soak in the announcements of how healthy and happy the animals are, and how great the place is for keeping them that way. Their kids yell and scream, so everyone is happy. Most like the part where huge, fast animals with big teeth show absolute deference as they interact with trainers ... the thrill of having a dangerous animal become subservient. Even with the diversity of regional cultures imprinted on the shows the basic human needs they fulfill are universal: entertainment, diversion, excitement. Few seriously go to learn anything, which is reasonable because they are not given much to learn anyway. To watch the people watching the show is a sad but revealing show in itself.

Some shell out more money to "interact" with dolphins, to pet the squeaky-skinned animal at their knee, or be nuzzled or pulled around by an enormous, powerful but (they are assured) safe and humbled creature. After a 15 to 30 minute lecture has made them dolphin experts, the show or "swim" ends and they all go home ... oblivious to what they really experienced: what it means to the animals and the families they were taken from. Why do so very few people see the terrible flaws? Why do few of those actually do something about it?


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