Morgan just wants to have fun!

Morgan displaying beaching play behaviour
Animal-rights groups always want to put a very negative interpretation on any of these activities animals display.  It is always considered that the animal is displaying some kind of suffering.  However, the animal behaviourist Dr Martha Kiley-Worthington, made a very valid point that whilst animals can display signs of “suffering” they can also display signs of “joy”. 

Recently the media have been feverishly displaying video of the behaviour of the young killer whale Morgan at the Spanish zoological collection Loro Parque at Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife, Spain.  Video footage shows the animal beaching itself on the platform surrounding its pool.  Various animal-rights groups – who are opposed to animals being maintained in zoological collections – immediately made claims that the animal was distressed and suggested this might be a suicide attempt.  However, closer investigation reveals that this is in point of fact play behaviour by this animal that she has displayed for quite some time and is not, as claimed, abnormal or a sign of self harm.

Morgan’s life has an interesting history.  She was rescued in an emaciated state from the Dutch coast and rehabilitated at Harderwijk Marine Mammal Park.  Because of her young age, it was decided that she could not be released back to the wild.  Moreover, it is believed that the social groups of whales she came from are resident for some periods time off the coast of Norway so she was a very long way from her original home.  The animal-rights groups tried three times in the Dutch courts to acquire this animal for an experimental release project.  Each time they failed to convince the judge that this was a feasible or indeed in the interests of the welfare of this animal.  The Dutch government decided that she should be relocated with other whales in an aquarium.  Since she moved to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands independent research has shown that she has a hearing impairment and may well be deaf which may explain why she stranded and had to be rescued.  Hearing impairment or deafness in a killer whale is extremely serious as they cannot hunt for food using echolocation or communicate with other whales.  This in itself would be a death sentence if she returned to the wild. 

Morgan’s full story can be found linked in the article below:

Morgan - The Rescued Female Killer Whale

Two animal keeping professionals who had worked with Morgan in the past responded on social media with the following comments.  These support the hypothesis that this animal is displaying play behaviour.  The first comment states:

“...I did observe this sliding out behaviour, not only in Morgan but in other whales as well, particularly Adán, and sometimes Skyla and Kohana as well. There were different reasons, what you have to realize is, these land areas the stage, the slide out, are part of the whales environment, they have access to these areas during sessions and in free time so will utilize them. A few reasons whales would slide out include principally, playtime, Morgan and Adan would often interact with one whale on the slide out and the other in the water, and then they would "drop in" on each other, almost like a game of hide and seek. Other reasons include inquisitiveness, if Morgan can't see the trainers as they are backstage, maybe discussing the plans for a show or evaluating how a show went, she would slide out and try and peek through the gap in the stage to see the trainers!  This slide out behaviour is in no way abnormal for her or the other whales.  The main times I spent around Morgan would be during playtime sessions with her, giving her enrichment or simply having fun whilst other whales were doing a show or a session. She did everything the other whales did. And she thrived in it as well, when it came to speed or high energy behaviours, Morgan would always be one of the fastest or the highest.  Morgan was part of the group, she is a very strong social animal that held her own within the group. She especially has a great relationship with Adán, the youngest whale. I compared it to two young children that just loved being in each other’s company playing around...”

Statement by Loro Parque regarding Morgan’s behaviour.

A second animal keeping professional observed:

“...Back in 2012 - 2013 when I worked with her we saw her playing a lot on land with the other whales. She is so extremely agile on land it was incredible...”
In a similar vein, Dr. Kelly Jaakkola, the Director of Research for the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) was asked about this beaching behaviour and responded:
"Morgan is not nearly the only animal that does this. At Dolphin Research Center, our young dolphins often beach themselves for short periods of time. In fact, they make a game out of it. I have no reason to think it's any different for Morgan", she explained. "I see no more reason to worry about that than I do when a human child who knows how to swim jumps in a pool… and then comes back out again, all on his own. This is a trained behavior. Morgan does it all the time, for medical check-ups, public demonstrations, hearing tests, etc. She knows how to get up and how to get down, and once she's learned that, it's not "unusual" for her at all."
It has always been a problem when a facility is open to the public and people can freely take photographs or video.  The animal-rights movement  have a habit of taking relatively straightforward and innocent video footage and turning it into some kind of distorted narrative which the naive media then unthinkingly distribute.   

Animal-rights groups always want to put a very negative interpretation on any of these activities animals display.  It is always considered that the animal is displaying some kind of suffering.  However, the animal behaviourist Dr Martha Kiley-Worthington, made a very valid point that whilst animals can display signs of “suffering” they can also display signs of “joy”.  Whilst this may seem an anthropomorphic statement, it puts in context the reality of the situation.  The animal-rights supporters always want to label any behaviour they see displayed by animals in captivity as aberrant and disturbed.  Whereas the reality might be very different as far as the animal is concerned.  Loro Parque could, of course, try to dissuade Morgan from displaying these behaviours.  However, this in itself would be wrong as she obviously enjoys (finds pleasurable) presenting these behaviours. Moreover, on many occasions these are interactive displays between the other whales or her trainers.

One final point that needs to be repeated, the animal-rights activists who continue to protest against Morgan being in a Spanish zoo have an underlying agenda.  As mentioned above, these groups and individuals want to acquire Morgan for a cruel and ill-conceived experimental release project.  Therefore, they are using every tactic to try and discredit Loro
Parque and its high standards of animal husbandry at every opportunity using misinformation and sometimes blatant falsehoods.

The Facebook page dolphinaria.truth has also produced a video and links of Morgan's beaching play behaviour HERE.

Further reading

Intentional stranding apprenticeship and social play in killer whales (Orcinus orca)

Do dolphin commit suicide in captivity?

Recent video of Morgan swimming with other whales at the park