On 23 June 2010, a young female killer whale was reported to be swimming in the Dutch Wadden Sea; a rare event for this species with the last stranding in Dutch waters in 1963.
The animal was monitored and it became clear the animal was in some distress and with the permission of the Dutch government the cetacean rescue foundation SOS Dolfijn and employees from Dolfinarium Harderwijk rescued the animal and took it to a temporary holding pool at Harderwijk for assessment and treatment.
Morgan, as the whale was to be called, was clearly malnourished when it arrived with her weight around 430 pounds. However, there were no sign of any underlying disease. She was monitored and medical parameters such a blood chemistry were measured. She progressed well and was found to be more than a 1000 kg. in weight when weighed in March 2011.
|Morgan photographed in June 2010 showing her malnourished state noted by the depression of body tissue coverage behind her head.|
In the case of other rescued cetaceans such as harbour porpoise SOS Delfijn would endeavour to have released these animals (if considered fit) back to the wild.
However, with a killer whale this situation is more problematic as these animals appear to have close social bonds unlike some other species like the porpoise or bottlenose dolphins whose grouping are subject to social change; a phenomena sometimes referred to as a fission-fusion society. Moreover, generally speaking, rescued and rehabilitated animals should be return to an area considered part of their home range that could be an area near to where they were originally stranded.
In Morgan's case, there was no precise information as to where she came from although research from the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID Project who was contacted by Harderwijk believed she might have originated from herring eating killer whales from Norway. Information from the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID Project and Morgan can be found HERE.
Harderwijk then commissioned a report from wildlife experts on the best possible course of action to be taken as regards Morgan's future welfare. This report is linked below:
Expert advice on the releasability of the rescued killer whale (Orcinus orca) Morgan
The report concluded that for a number reasons Morgan was not a suitable candidate for release and therefore a suitable location and setting for keeping her under human care had to be arranged.
However, during this time a number of animal-rights factions and groups began to take an interest in Morgan and set-up a campaign to obtain this animal for an experimental release project back to the wild. They published their own report into the matter. This report is linked below:
Suggestions for returning “Morgan” the orca (killer whale) to a natural life in the ocean
The various groups then employed the service of a scientist who had studied wild killer whales in New Zealand Dr. Ingrid Visser who along with Terry Hardie a member of the Orca Research Trust produced a second report on releasing Morgan. This report can be found here:
“Morgan” the orca can and should be rehabilitated: With additional notes on why a transfer to another ‘captive orca 4 facility’ is inappropriate and release is preferred.
In early July 2011, Harderwijk announced that Morgan would be moved to join a group of captive bred killer whales at Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain and was given a permit to export from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation.
However, The Orca Coalition, together with Dr. Visser, went to the Dutch courts and managed to have the proposed export of Morgan to Loro Parque in Tenerife stalled. The judge ruled that the Ministry needed to undertake a more independent investigation as to the best outcome for the welfare of Morgan.
On 11 October 2011 Dutch government Agriculture Secretary Henk Bleker ruled that Morgan's chances of survival in the wild were too small and approved the transfer to Loro Parque.
Despite this The Orca Coalition again tried to block Morgan's move to Loro Parque and an appeal was heard in the Dutch courts on the 7 November 2011. The judge gave a written verdict on the case on 21 November and sanctioned that Morgan should be moved Loro Parque.
Morgan was transported from Harderwijk to Loro Park on the morning of 29 November 2011 and arrived safely and was integrated into the resident pod of whales at the park.
In the 2012 spring edition of Zooquaria: the publication of the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria, Harderwijk's veterinarian reported of the efforts of the various animal-rights groups to discredit the reputation of Harderwijk and its rescue of Morgan.
On 24 May 2012 a news release from Loro Parque that stated they believed Morgan might well be deaf due to her behaviour during training and her response to audio cues. See details below in the hearing test section.
This news was received by The Orca Coalition and its supporters with derision stating that this was a plot to retain the animal and that the park and it associates where worried about losing the up and coming appeal in the Dutch courts.
They further supported their position by citing the case of Sully a pilot whale that standard July 14, 2009 in the island of Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles and was rehabilitated by the Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network (SCCN) conservation group. They maintained that no real efforts were made to release this animal and that it was always destined to go to a marine park. This was regardless of the fact that a sustained effort was made to try to release Sully back to the wild. Video HERE
Sully was eventually rehoused with other pilot whales at Sea World in California in January 2010 and tests relived this animal did have impaired hearing loss and this would have impeded any chance of rehabilitation back to the wild. Sully died at the park on 26 May 2012 as a result of ongoing health issues related to his original stranding.
Despite Morgan's move Loro Park to the animal-rights groups led by The Orca Coalition filed yet another appeal in the Dutch courts that was heard to be heard on 1 November 2012.
A ruling on this case was be delivered by the judge on 13 December. The judgment stated that the permit to move Morgan should only be issued if the goal was research or teaching. The judgement conclude that the park on Tenerife conducts research and performs an educational function and therefore the whales move was legal.
The Court further saw no reason to believe that the welfare of Morgan was in danger in Tenerife; if the Orca Coalition and its supporting groups disagree they are open to take legal action in a Spanish court.
The full judgement in Dutch can be found HERE.
The basic thrust of the latest failed appeal was again to try and obtain Morgan for a release experiment and moreover to stop further rescues of animals such as killer whales within Dutch waters by projects such as SOS Delfijn and Harderwijk.
The groups also stated on their web page that Morgan probably should have not been taken from the sea according to international regulations. This despite the fact that SOS Delfijn do return all animals deemed fit with a good chance of survival back to the wild environment and that clearly if Morgan had been left in the wild she would have died.
On the Tuesday 3rd of December 2013 the Free Morgan Foundation and their supporters returned yet again to High Court in Den Haag (The Hague), Netherlands to try an obtain this animal for their experimental release project. However, on the 23 May 2014 the Dutch court ruled for the third time that the Dutch Minister for Agriculture acted lawfully in granting permission for Morgan to be transferred to Loro Park in Tenerife.
In 2017, seven years since Morgan was rescued, the Free Morgan Foundation again made complaints with the Dutch and Spanish CITES committees regarding Morgan being cared for at Loro Parque. These were again dismissed. The CITES committees made the statement:
“The transfer of the whale Morgan from Hharderwijk Dolfinarium in Holland to the facilities of Loro Parque in Tenerife in 2011 was carried out fulfilling the provisions of Article 9 of Regulation (EC) 338/97 and endorsed by the Dutch State Council ruling that the return of the animal to the ocean was neither an alternative nor a satisfactory solution”.
In November 2012, Morgan was given a "evoked potential" audio test that records brain response to auditory activity. All orcas sampled at Loro Parque with the exception of Morgan show responses to audio stimulation. In the assessment report of the test it stated in the conclusions:
"...The lack of a click,evoked response in the killer whale, Morgan, suggests that this animal suffers from a hearing deficit. The magnitude and frequency range over which the hearing deficit occurs cannot be specified with the techniques used here as the click stimulus lacks the frequency specificity necessary for frequency,specific threshold measures. Nevertheless, it can be concluded based upon the recording of click,evoked responses at varying click levels in other whales that Morgan’s hearing ability is at least 20–30 dB worse than the hearing sensitivity of the other whales tested. It is possible that Morgan suffers from a profound hearing deficit, or even complete loss of hearing, but the frequency range and magnitude of the loss cannot be determined through currently employed electrophysiological means. The failure to observe a click,evoked AEP is consistent with behavioural observations by the trainers at Loro Parque, who indicated that Morgan did not show any reaction to purely acoustic cues and would often not respond to hand slaps on the water surface immediately behind her..." Assessment of basic audiometric functions in killer whales (Orcinus orca) at Loro Parque, Tenerife, Spain. Technical Report, number C045.13
The research team consisted of specialists from the Netherlands Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem study (Imares) and the National Endowment for the U.S. Marine Mammal and Office of Naval Research for the U.S. Army (U.S. Navy). The 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 that are considered for release after rehabilitation by the US government. This research has now been published in peer review: Variability in Click-Evoked Potentials in Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) and Determination of a Hearing Impairment in a Rehabilitated Killer Whale (2016) Lucke, Klaus, Finneran, James J., Almunia, Javier, and Houser, Dorian S. Aquatic Mammaals. Volume 42 - Issue 2
Report complied on "Morgan" October 2012 at Loro Park HERE
Also see: Zoo Nation: The Case of Morgan: When Activism Falls on Deaf Ears
Morgan, two years at Loro Parque. December 2013. Hearing test.