Photo courtesy of Mystic Aquarium

As Second Whale Falls Ill, Mystic Scientists Offer Impassioned Defense of their Work

MYSTIC — After news on Tuesday that a second of five beluga whales recently transferred to Mystic Aquarium had fallen seriously ill — the first died earlier this month — CT Examiner spoke on Wednesday afternoon with Stephen Coan, the president of the aquarium, and two senior staff scientists, about the care and health of the whales, about the facility where the whales lived prior to the move, and about the possible source of the recent health issues.

In a lengthy question and answer by conference call, the staff vigorously defended the health and care of marine mammals at Mystic Aquarium and the appropriateness of the move in May from MarineLand, Ontario, Canada. 

Asked whether stress had been a significant contributing factor to the recent illnesses, the scientists did not wholly rule out that explanation, given that it would take some time for scientists to fully understand the cause of recent health problems, but they pointed instead to a combination of likely bad luck, and the prior health of animals being kept at MarineLand.

In a separate conversation with Daniel Pesquera, interim director of public relations at the aquarium, Pesquera acknowledged that the prior conditions where the animals had been kept were less than optimal.

“I’ll say that — and MarineLand would acknowledge this — I don’t think you could say that any of the whales there were in perfect condition or ideal condition in terms of their health. There certainly are a lot of challenges at the MarineLand facility — just in terms of they have many, many whales, and they’re just not able to offer them the same level of individual attention and medical support, and overall care that our facility can.” 

Dr. Allison Tuttle, senior vice president of zoological operations at Mystic Aquarium, said that of the initial five animals chosen for the move, three had been ruled out due to health concerns that arose during medical tests. 

“[The tests] were conducted by the staff up there because we could not be there due to COVID,” she said. “When we got a diagnostic test for pre-shipment, three of those five animals had what I would call a significant chronic health concern that they identified and so we removed those three animals from the transport roster.”

Coan also acknowledged concerns about the animals at MarineLand, but defended the appropriateness of the move, and the overall health and quality of life at Mystic Aquarium. The scientists gave strong and detailed support to his comments. 

“There are general concerns about MarineLand that we share,” Coan said. “These animals were cleared to transport. They were in good shape to transport at the time we did so.” 

Tuttle described the move in May as uneventful, and the initial response to their new home as positive.

Dr. Tracy Romano, the chief scientist at Mystic Aquarium, who researches issues of stress on marine animals, said that the whales had been closely monitored for stress responses during the move, and that the tests appeared normal.

Asked whether stress was a significant contributing factor to these recent health problems, Romano did not draw a link.

“We can’t rule [stress] out, but we can’t rule it in as well. I mean, it’s an unknown at this point. We can’t really pinpoint it to stress. Certainly these animals have physiological responses, just like we do. If we were on an airplane, traveling, we would have a normal physiological response and if we didn’t have that response, that would be an issue. So these animals seem to be responding normally and they transitioned well, once they arrived at Mystic Aquarium after the transport. So it’s perplexing.”

Tuttle said that she wanted to dispel the idea that when an animal becomes sick that it is the result of negligence or poor care. 

“Just like in people, animals can develop medical conditions and certain animals are prone to things, like certain people may be prone to things. We work really hard, making sure that we’re providing optimal health care in all of those scenarios so when we have a sick animal it sometimes feels as though people are insinuating that something wasn’t done correctly, and that’s just not the case. In our scenarios here, we’re working really hard for animals that have come from a fairly compromised situation and are trying to make sure that they are getting all the healthcare that they need. We certainly don’t believe that we’ve played any role in causing these conditions.”

According to Coan, staff first became aware that one of the female beluga whales was sick on Friday and that her condition worsened over the weekend, leading to a Facebook post from the aquarium on Tuesday that she was extremely ill and failing. 

“We became aware that this animal had a serious health condition sometime on Friday and it became increasingly clear that there were issues as the weekend progressed into Monday. The diagnostic tests take at least 24 hours for us to process because of the complexity of them. The concern that we have is the combination of gastrointestinal issues plus low white blood cell count.”

Tuttle said that prior to the health issue on Friday, none of the beluga whales at Mystic Aquarium were being treated for acute or chronic medical conditions, and that compared to the wild, the animals are likely healthier and living in a less stressful environment. 

“Wild animals could be just as prone to having a gastrointestinal issue, maybe even more so prone to getting various things like infections because they’re exposed to more things and less protected from all the possible things that would happen that the aquarium protects against. We know these animals are just like people. It doesn’t matter whether you live outside or inside or in a city or in the country, you’re still prone to potentially an infection or an injury or this or that. Our job is to provide the highest quality medical care, which we do. We address every symptom that comes up, whether it’s small or large,” she said. 

In response to questions about the appropriateness of keeping beluga whales at Mystic Aquarium, Romano offered a passionate defense of their work and its role in saving the species. Romano compared their work to conditions in the wild, particularly recent deaths among the Cook Inlet population. 

“We’re losing animals left and right in a very small population. I don’t have the number at my fingertips for how many strandings and recorded dead animals from that population in a year but it’s because of the conditions and what’s happening to their environment. So we’re losing and we’re hoping that population doesn’t become extinct, but if we don’t figure out what’s happening and put in some strict management conditions for their environment, we’re going to lose that entire population,” she said. 

Coan said he wanted the public and the press to understand the complexity of the beluga whale issues and to respect the scientific background of those who work with the animals. 

“The first thing is that no one other than the attending veterinarians are qualified to comment on the health of these animals and it is inappropriate for people who are not veterinarians to be representing themselves as experts on animal health generally, but especially with regard to the particular issues affecting this animal or other animals,” he said. 

“These animals were moved, yes, for research, but also with the understanding that the health care that would be provided to them would be better, exponentially better, than it was where they came from,” he said. 

At 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Mystic Aquarium provided an updated status via Facebook.

“The veterinarian staff continues to closely monitor the female beluga whale who has recently become ill. At this time, there have been no significant changes in the beluga’s condition. Our team continues to dedicate the full capacity of its resources and expertise to help this whale recover. We will continue to provide updates as they become available. We are extremely grateful to all those who have offered your support to the Mystic Aquarium community.”

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