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The following piece was co-written by Maria R.Grillet.
On September 22, 2018, Morgan, a 10-year-old killer whale at Loro Parque, gave birth to a healthy female calf who was later named Ula by their trainers. Although Morgan showed excellent maternal instincts towards her newborn daughter, she was not producing enough milk to provide her the necessary nutrients that she would need to thrive during the first few years of life. So, the animal care staff at Loro Parque intervened by separating them into different sections of the Open Ocean habitat to hand-rear her.
Over a period of four months, the trainers, under the guidance of animal care specialists from different facilities across the world, hand-reared Ula with a milk formula consisted of milk, salmon oil, minced fish, and Morgan’s own milk. This milk enabled Ula to gain weight and thrive under their care during her time being separated from her mother and it ended being around-the-clock care.
Four months later, Ula had been recently reunited with her mother and like on the day she was born, Morgan is proving to trainers that despite having to have had her calf be separated from her, that she is still an excellent mother to Ula.
Now, activists are targeting Loro Parque, not because of having Morgan in their care, but because of some recent photos and video of Ula that has shaken social media to its knees.
What’s the issue?
On January 25th, 2019, A group of radical animal rights extremists who run an internet-based anti-zoo blog called “Voices of the Orcas” posted a series of photos of Ula interacting with her trainers during a play session by claiming that she was “sick” from what appeared to be an onset of skin “lesions.” In addition, they also made claims about her having a “disfigured” head and a “diseased” pectoral fin while they were comparing her to a wild orca calf. It did appear that these activists were trying to sell off the idea that Ula was “terminally ill” in order to paint a negative image of Loro Parque and other marine zoological facilities that housed orcas and other cetaceans in their care.
However, thanks to a video that Loro Parque has recently posted on its social media pages, it can now be safe to say that there is no truth to this matter what so ever.
What is the truth?
What activists are not addressing their loyal followers about, is the fact that like beluga whales, orcas will shed their skin every two hours, or so. This means that Ula is growing up and that is a normal process that she will likely continue to experience during the remainder of her first year. In fact, all animals go through “awkward” stages of growing up.
In addition, activists do not seem to explain that Ula is a mix breed in terms of orca eco-types. This means that aside from having Norwegian ancestry that she inherited from her mother, she also has Icelandic and North Pacific ancestry that she inherited from either Keto (Icelandic X Southern Resident), who has already sired the previous two calves who were born at Loro Parque, or Tekoa (Icelandic X Transient), who seems to have a closer relationship with Morgan. Yet, the identity of Ula’s father has yet to be announced by Loro Parque officials themselves.
What does Loro Parque's official video show?
In the video that Loro Parque first posted on its Facebook page, Ula can be seen interacting with her trainers during a feeding session that her mother, Morgan, was taking part in. These sessions don’t involve the animals doing any behaviors that would normally occur when they taking part in a show, but they do involve regular interactions between trainers and whales as they were fed their regular amount of food throughout the day.
The video also showed Ula bonding with her mother with Morgan spinning around underwater to see her daughter at play. It proves that Morgan, despite being deaf, and not being able to produce enough milk, is an excellent mother to Ula.
One thing that the video did make clear in regards to Ula, is that she has no head deformity, nor does she have any rotting skin going on. This is all because of the dedicated team at Loro Parque who have spent the last four months ensuring that she would thrive through endless days of hand-rearing her when she needed around-the-clock care with every intention to eventually reunite her with her mother.
Keep in mind that even if she was actually sick, she would have the great veterinarians that Loro Parque has in staff to provide every treatment that is out there to her to ensure a quick recovery. But thankfully, Ula does not appear to show any signs of health issues that we should be concerned about.
The Credibility of the “Experts”
Ingrid Visser, who is a controversial orca researcher who is based in New Zealand, is not a researcher that anyone would want to trust when it comes to the welfare of orcas in human care. This is considering her own record of how her own lack of experience in animal care resulted in the death of an orca calf who was being rehabilitated by Visser and a few of her employees saw him being subjected to human contact from both Visser, and concerned town residents who were often allowed to touch him despite the fact that goes completely against wildlife rehabilitation ethics.It also did not help that this particular calf was being rehabilitated in an unfiltered pool, which left him exposed to all sorts of diseases that would have affected any chance of him making a full recovery. It’s really no wonder why he died in her care after a few days. This is the same woman who continues to make attempts to bride the European Union into enabling her to acquire Morgan from Loro Parque in an attempt to make her a subject to a “return-to-the-wild” experiment and proposed a SeaWorld-like sea pen that would not only house 300 animals, but also, operate like a typical zoo or aquarium would.
If having a desire to build a sea-pen version of SeaWorld doesn’t raise enough eyebrows about Ingrid Visser, then, it is the fact that there are a number of photos and videos of her online where she can be seen interacting with wild orcas by calling them to her boat by splashing her hands in the water before proceeding to touch them.
Then, there is John Jett, a self-proclaimed orca “expert” who briefly worked at SeaWorld in the 90s. While the “Voices of Orcas” site contains plenty of comments he has made in regards to Ula, Morgan, and the orcas that reside at Loro Parque, what he would not talk about to his readers, is the fact that when he did work with Orlando’s killer whale family, which included its late whale patriarch, Tillikum, he was always under the supervision of other trainers. He was later demoted to Sea Lion and Otter Stadium, due to being a poor swimmer and being disliked by the whales (ouch!).
Meanwhile, another “expert” named Naomi Rose, who has long targeted SeaWorld over its orca family, has no animal care experience at all. Her main reason for developing an anti-zoo agenda was because she was involved in a freak accident while she was on a holiday trip at a dolphin swim facility in the 1990s. She would go on to target any zoo, or aquarium that houses cetaceans by trying to convince the public that these facilities are “bad” and that they need to go to a “sanctuary” where they would have little to no human contact at all. In addition, she did play a role in the disastrous Free Willy project in Iceland that resulted in the death of an orca named Keiko in 2003.
Questionable Priorities of the So-Called “Experts”
It’s very saddening to see that these so-called “experts” are not using their supposed expertise to help orcas who are actually in trouble. For example, in Russia, there are eleven orcas that currently reside in a sea pen who are all living in poor conditions. According to a number of sources, claim that some of these animals are suffering from skin problems that are related to the freezing sea ice and may require long-term veterinary care for the time being.
For example, one such orca named Cyril is believed to be in very poor condition and is going to require long-term veterinary care until he is healthy enough to either move to an Asian facility or be released.
Yet, there is a push within Russia by local courts to release the animals despite the fact that they have been used to human contact for the two to four years and releasing them, especially when they themselves are young, inexperienced orcas who may have not been fully taught how to hunt, nor use sonar to navigate through the murky waters of the Russian Arctic. The researchers who want the whales to be released may be required to conduct a survey in figuring out the identities of their birth pods and determine which animals from those pods are their biological parents and grandparents. That too can take a very long period of time when you can consider the amounts of DNA testing, photo IDs through surveys, and matching their vocalizations to their natal pods.
Having those experts involved in the Russia situation could provide a life-saving insight that should be focused on improving the lives of the animals that live in that pen, by having the animals be given medical treatment until they are healthy enough to either move to a well-managed facility in Asia or, be released. Other improvements would be as followed:
- Ensuring that the facility has a well-trained staff that is well-trained in marine mammal husbandry, and care.
- A well-established emergency plan for the facility to have if a storm or the freezing of sea ice ends up serving as a potential danger to the animals to the point where they would be required to be evacuated.
- Have a filtration system that would keep the pens healthy and clean all-year-around, and so on.
However, it would be unlikely that these experts would use their alleged expertise for this matter since their focus would be placed on having the animals released.
Another area they could serve when it comes to orca issue is the ongoing crisis that the Southern Resident orca population is currently facing. Enough studies on this endangered population of just about 75 orcas are facing extinction as a result of pollution, and lack of salmon that serve as their primary food source. They could be using their knowledge on resident orcas to find ways to continue educating the public about the plight of resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest, place restrictions on the fishing of wild salmon, assist on health surveys of individual whales, and work to have the damns removed from salmon migration paths. Oh, by the way, SeaWorld has been involved with this issue by donating money to fund these conservation efforts and sharing an expert opinion on how to help wild orca populations recover.
Meanwhile, back to Ula, Loro Parque is working with the University of Southern Denmark to study echolocation abilities in orca calves, while taking part in research on wild orca populations in the North Atlantic. In fact, Ula is serving as a subject for a study that could help researchers understand how noise pollution effects cetaceans and what can be done to reduce those effects.
What to Remember
What you need to understand that these so-called “experts” having very little, to knowledge, nor training in veterinary medicine to make such diagnosis on Ula based on photographs alone. Only a veterinary can make an accurate diagnosis through a series of actual medical testing by husbandry sessions. These sessions consist of behaviors that would enable a veterinarian to conduct exams and tests through blood tests, fecal and urine samples, x-ray exams, dental exams, and ultrasound exams. They all provide a way for veterinarians can make a proper diagnosis so that they can admit the right and most effective treatment that can ensure the animals can recover both faster, and sooner.
While the so-called "researchers" are only trying to make zoos and aquariums look like bad facilities, they are not about helping orcas, they are all about trying to cover their own agendas by seeking monetary gain from a concerned public who have no idea that their money is more likely going to be used to control the marine zoological community rather than actual conservation issues. In addition, if zoos and aquariums are a true pet issue to them, the main focus should be on improving living conditions for animals living at bad facilities by investing in better habitats, better animal care programs, better breeding programs, better veterinarians, better enrichment, and most of all, a better quality of life for those animals.
Note: Once again, a big thanks to Maria R.Grillet for co-writing this piece on Morgan and Ula with me.