Tragic death of whale exploited by animal-rights activists.

The dead female humpback whale

After several failed court actions in The Netherlands to secure into custody the young stranded killer whale “Morgan” the future plans of the Orca Coalition and it animal-right partners - such as the group The Black Fish - have now become clear. 

Despite the possibility of initiating some form of further court action in Spain, the groups seem to have decided on another less costly tactic: that of the sabotaging the reputation of the very people responsible for the rescue and care of “Morgan” the killer whale namely the SOS Dolfijn Foundation and Harderwijk Dolfinarium .

The catalyst for this latest action seems to have come when a 12-metre female humpback whale was spotted stranded on sandbanks near the Dutch island of Texel on the early morning Wednesday 12 December 2012.  Efforts were made to return the animal back to deep water by staff at the nearby aquarium and environmental centre Ecomare who were then joined by the Dutch Lifeguards (KNRM) .  The animal was freed from the sandbar but due to its weakened state was washed back on shore to another sandbar an hour later.   During this operation advice was sort from staff at the SOS Dolfijn Foundation and a marine mammal veterinary of the Harderwijk Dolfinarium was sent to inspect the animal.  

Due to bad weather the animal was left overnight.   On Friday 14 December further efforts were made to move the animal into deep water.  It was reported that at one point a helicopter and a net were used.  But unfortunately due to the whale’s location the logistics of safely moving the animal were virtually impossible due to the animal’s size and its distance from deep water.  

The red dot marks the position of the humpback whale. Graphic from the KNRM web site,

Because of its failing health and the impossibility of getting the animal safely into deep waters it was decided that euthanasia was the most humane action to end this animals suffering. This was undertaken late Friday night by a large dose of tranquillizer administered by a veterinarian.  

Unfortunately, whilst the animal may well have been heavily sedated it did not die and a further injection was undertaken on Saturday afternoon.  

The whale was pronounced dead on the following Sunday morning.  

During this period of time the whale’s fate took the interest of various animal-rights organisations particularly those involved with the failed campaign to free the above mentioned stranded killer whale “Morgan”.   Having been thwarted in their attempts to obtain this animal from what they considered the evils of the captive animal industry (and seeking a strategy to maintain themselves in the public spotlight) it was decided to set-up their own rescue attempt of the stricken whale.

Putting together a rescue team of “independent experts” they set off to try and locate the whale.  The group consisted of Wietse van der Werf skipper of The Black Fish boat Zeno 1325 and founder of the Black Fish lobby group; Dutch animal rights activist and the founder of the Pieterburen seal rescue centre (Zeehondencrèche) Lenie 't Hart and seal centre staff member Andre van Gemmert;  Laura Lauta van Aysma a biologist with a special interest in whale song who had undertaken field research with humpback whales in Hawaii.  No veterinarian was present.  However, attempts to gain access to the whale initially were blocked by the Dutch authorities with a decision to euthanize the dying whale already taken.

Further, on the Saturday an attempt was made to view the whale by Black Fish along with Dutch MP and animal-rights activist Marianne Thieme but it was abandon due to bad weather.  Thieme is a member of the Dutch parliament for the animal rights Party For Animals and an active supporter of the Free Morgan campaign.

At news of the whales death Lenie t'Hart (who runs the Zeehondencreche, a marine animal rescue centre that specialises in seal rehabilitation in northern Netherlands) told Dutch national broadcaster NOS: 

"Those who wanted him dead have won".

In a web release The Black Fish group also issued their own account of the rescue clearly linking their displeasure at once again not being given control over a stranded marine mammal stating: 

The stand-off with the humpback comes a day after a Dutch court ruled that the Minister's actions had been lawful when dealing with a previous controversial stranding case: that of orca Morgan. This new case will force another spotlight on how the Dutch authorities deal with these situations and The Black Fish, together with other organisations in the Orca Coalition, will continue their campaign for improved policies, giving similar animals a better chance at freedom in future.

Unfortunately, whilst the sentiments of people such as Lenie t'Hart and Black Fish might be supported by members of the various animal-rights groups the actual science says something a bit different.  Sadly, it appears that even if successfully re-floated the chances of the whale’s recovery and survival could have been compromised only after one hour after she fully beached let alone the several days of beaching this animal had been subjected to.

In the UK cetacean stranding are catalogued and where possible animals that have died or been euthanized are sent for post-mortem to a project run by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).  A news article in The New Scientist magazine in March 2009 vets working for ZSL made a clear statement that rescuing large stranded whales may well be futile due to damage they sustain while beached:

“… the whales' large size makes them vulnerable to kidney failure if they beach themselves. Without the support of the surrounding seawater, their weight damages their muscles, releasing stores of damaging myoglobin into the bloodstream…According to the autopsy data from the ZSL, once the whales have been stranded for an hour, the renal damage is already irreversible. Attempting to refloat the whales at this point only makes the situation worse, as it allows their blood to circulate more freely, carrying even more myoglobin into the kidneys…”

The research suggests that unless re-floating can be undertaken swiftly killing the whale may be a more humane option. 

Not surprisingly, this kind of advice has not gone well with some whale rescue supporters who consider that efforts to refloat animals should continue more or less to the point of the animals death: 

“… the sentiment expressed …can be used as a banner for why stranded large whales have been abused, tortured and killed in UK, Ireland, USA, NZ, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and many other countries…”

To support this position they selectively cite a number of isolated situations of post-mortem findings not detecting kidney damage or rare examples of refloating success and animal survival.  
Unfortunately, they do not seem to grasp that the statement from ZSL scientists is based on their systematic year on year findings of whale standings on the UK coastline as part of the UK government funded UK Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP).

Moreover, reports of kidney failure in large whales that have stranded and died in the UK have been commonly reported in the popular media including the famous "Thames Whale":
No hope of saving beached whale ; Whale stranded on British beach is put to sleep ; We should have put stranded whale to sleep

To this end, it is now standard practise to euthanize large stranded whales in the UK when there is no realistic chance of them being re-floated quickly. 

A post-mortem of the whale was undertaken by Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands.  This showed considerable muscle damage estimated to be anything from one to six days prior to death which was considered so extensive that the animal would have been unable to swim.  It also had an empty stomach and a cataract in its left eye.  

Due to the decomposing of the body some detailed examination of the pathology of the animal could not be carried out.  Therefore, kidney damage due to the release of large amounts of myoglobin from the muscle damage could not be confirmed but this would not be an unreasonable assumption as a contributing cause of death of the whale.

A claim that the whale was deliberately killed because it skeleton had been sold to the museum was found to be completely false and strongly condemned by the museum.  

Unfortunately, these kinds of erroneous and hysterical claims seemed to have dogged the whole sad story of the whale’s stranding which clearly has been exploited for various ideological reasons and agendas.  Attacks have been made on the various parties involved in trying to help the whale including claims of professional incompetence and profiteering. 

The actual facts are that everything that could have been done to help this distressed animal were properly undertaken.  The people involved were experts in the field of marine animal care – many working with these animals on a daily basis.  

SOS Dolfijn, for example, has an excellent record for the rescue and rehabilitation of cetaceans.  Animals that are deemed fit for release are returned to the wild.  Those that can not are displayed in high quality zoological exhibits and used for both educational and research purposes.  Testimony to this is the fact that these animals have not only thrived but also bred and reared young in these environments.  

It is ironic that there has been no acknowledgement from the critics of the rescue of Morgan the killer whale that it is because of the skill and dedication of the staff of the SOS Dolfijn Foundation and Harderwijk Dolfinarium that this animal was successfully rehabilitated back to health. 

As stated, it seems clear that many of the critics of the actions taken to help the suffering of the stranded humpback whale have agendas that have little to do with animal welfare and everything to do with the politics of animal rights. 

SOS Dolfijn statement regarding the whale can be found HERE.

The Ecomare statement regarding the whale can be found HERE.

Greenpeace statement (translation from Dutch): 

"the organizations involved have done their utmost to save the animal. It even had little to Greenpeace can add or change anything". Greenpeace states unequivocally that there has been no failure and emergency specialists, as is written here and there. It is according to this respected organization "very regrettable that the very workers who have worked for the animal, now being criticized."

Greenpeace meldde: "de betrokken organisaties hebben hun uiterste best gedaan het dier nog te redden. Daar had zelfs Greenpeace weinig aan toe kunnen voegen of iets aan kunnen veranderen". Greenpeace stelt onomwonden vast dat er niet sprake is geweest van falende hulpdiensten en specialisten, zoals hier en daar wordt geschreven. Het is volgens deze gerespecteerde organisatie "erg spijtig dat juist de hulpverleners die zich voor het dier hebben ingezet, nu worden bekritiseerd".