Infant Beluga Death Is No Mystery

By Lori Marino

Last Friday, June 5th, an infant beluga whale born to Maris and Beethoven at the Georgia Aquarium took her last breath. The whale was 26 days old, and the second infant from the same parents to die at the aquarium in three years. The first one, her sister, died less than a week after she was born.

The senior veterinarian and the care staff at the Georgia Aquarium all seem baffled by the early death of yet another infant beluga. According to the aquarium, the infant was not feeding well and not gaining weight as expected. She became lethargic and then her heart stopped. The aquarium told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that her death “may remain a mystery.

But this death is not a mystery at all. It’s a classic case of the well-known medical condition Failure To Thrive Syndrome. FTTS is seen in human children and other animals (it’s known as Fading Puppy and Kitten Syndrome in dogs and cats) when they fail to develop normally both physically and mentally.

The syndrome is associated with many diseases, but also with environmental conditions in which a child is either abused or neglected, and is not uncommon in orphanages. It’s also seen in other cognitively complex mammals, such as chimpanzees and elephants, who are kept in artificial conditions. So, the care staff at the aquarium need look no further than their Merck Manual of Medicine to find the answer to the question of why beluga whales do not reproduce well in aquaria and theme parks.

Why do so many marine mammals succumb to FTTS in captivity? Initially, this birth was hailed as the first successful breeding of two captive beluga whales, raising hopes among aquariums that they would be able to find a solution to their dwindling captive populations. But the facts make it perfectly clear why these breeding attempts keep failing and why beluga whales growing up in marine parks will never work.

Beluga whales are highly intelligent, socially complex mammals with brains over two and a half times the size expected for their body mass. Like other smart mammals, they depend upon a long period of learning to assume their roles as parents, siblings, friends and members of their social networks. They’ve adapted to living in fluid groups that in the open ocean can range from just a few individuals to sometimes thousands.

In the wild, a daughter learns from her mother and from other experienced females how to become a mother and raise her own children.

In the wild, female belugas choose when and with whom they want to mate. Their calves remain close to them for 4-5 years or more, during which time a daughter learns from her mother and from other experienced females in the group how to become a mother and raise her own children. When she eventually gives birth, other females in the extended family are present to assist in forming protected and caring nursery groups. This is beluga whale culture. These are the circumstances to which these whales have adapted over millions of years and that they need in order to thrive.

Now look at the situation at the Georgia Aquarium. Maris, the 20-year-old mother, was born at the New York Aquarium, where she was housed with other belugas who were stolen from their wild families. Her mother, Natasha, was taken from her family when she was only four years old. So Maris never had the benefit of a mother who could pass on important cultural information to her about how to raise a child.

Still barely out of childhood, Maris has been transported five times in and out of different facilities. At the Georgia Aquarium she was forced into a situation that left her little choice than to mate with a male, Beethoven, who was chosen not by her, but by the staff. (Beethoven is now on “breeding loan” to Shedd Aquarium in Chicago).

For Maris, there was no autonomy, no continuity, and no opportunity to develop within a natural social and physical environment. She and her two infants were all born into an entirely unnatural world, one to which they are not adapted. One need only see the photographs of the infant beluga surrounded by several humans in wet suits. The Georgia Aquarium describes these scenes as being in the “arms of caregivers”. Although intentions might be good, the presence of humans is not a condition to which infant beluga whales are adapted, and it’s doubtful that either the baby or her mother experienced these human intrusions as the warm and comforting interactions the aquarium claims they were.

Studies of welfare in captive belugas support the assertion that belugas cannot live, let alone thrive, in a setting in which they never evolved. In captivity their lives are shorter and mortality rates are higher. They often die of stress-related diseases which break down their immune system function. They fail to thrive.

So, when the veterinarians and staff at the Georgia Aquarium claim to be flummoxed over the death of two infant belugas, they need look no further than any basic marine mammal ecology textbook to find the answer to why belugas will never thrive in theme parks.

18 Replies to “Infant Beluga Death Is No Mystery”

  1. How can these “scientists” and medical personnel be so [expletive] STUPID.

    1. like what make the writer of this article such an expert… HUH?????

      1. Dr. Marino, the writer of the article, has spent 20 years researching cetacean and primate intelligence and brain evolution. In 2001 she published the first definitive evidence for mirror self-recognition in dolphins. She has written author of over 80 publications on dolphin and whale brain anatomy and evolution, comparative intelligence and self-awareness in dolphins and primates, and the ethical dimensions of human-nonhuman relationships, including dolphin-assisted therapy and swim programs, as well as elephant-assisted therapy. She serves as an expert witness and consultant on the effects of captivity on animals and the claims of the captivity industry. She teaches animal intelligence, animal welfare, and other courses. Dr. Marino is the expert, and it would be wonderful if the fools at GA Aquarium would pay attention to her and stop torturing beluga whales.

      2. She has 18 years experience in medical research in animals, mainly cetaceans. I guess that’s a good answer to your question… HUH??? Check the Internet before questioning.

  2. This article is excellently written. The obvious is presented in a way that can not be ignored. Additional factors are probably related to dangerous medicines the captives whales are put on the manage the behavioral ill effects of captivity. As a physician I am fairly well versed on the probable ill effects the same drugs have on pregnant woman and their babies. These drugs are known to adversely effect gestation and the peri-natal period. Because these drugs are not throughly studied yet on whales, I believe aquariums are getting away hurting the offspring they artificially produce.

    1. As a pbysician, I don’t understand why you give synthetic CRAP to any living being.. I am stunned every time I see a commercial for medications. The list of dangers and side effects far out weigh the danger from the originating problem. But you will keep passing them around regardless if it fills your pocket.. You are no better than what the article speaks of.. Yeah.. AS A PHYSICIAN…YOU KNOW.. PLEASE!!! Hope all of these animals (and humans) can be free again one day from the money grubbers..

  3. It is a sad day when the staff of an aquarium think they can outsmart Mother Nature.

  4. Paul Slabaugh June 9, 2015 at 2:22 am

    Can’t nail it any closer than that!!!

    You have to ball up the myriad factors that will never be approachable within manvironments. All encompassing terms like ‘failure to thrive’ or the other scientific sounding direct admission of our vast ignorance, ‘idiopathic diseases’ (diseases of undetermined causes) are perfect admissions to a dismally failed experiment.

    Why do we allow the cruelty of lifelong imprisonment and life shortened experimentation to continue?” and “What is wrong with us?” .. These are significantly more legitimate and matured questions to ask than “How can we make marine mammals tolerate such an existence longer for our profit concerns!”

  5. An extremely succinct piece, showing us not only how cetaceans continually fail to thrive in impoverished and unnatural conditions–but also these marine attractions’ continual lack of honesty towards the public in admitting this failure. These places do not educate the public–they mis-educate the public and need to be phased out.

  6. I am a former volunteer at Georgia Aquarium. I am also a scuba diver, so the oppty to be a part of the “world’s largest aquarium” was something I jumped at. The founder of the aquarium (and co-founder of Home Depot) truly impressed me when he said that the aquarium will always be about education first, not entertainment…

    I loved having an oppty to share info with the guests. Early on, we lost one of the whale sharks and I began to hear things that I couldn’t believe were true.

    Then, they started letting people pay to swim/dive with the whale sharks. Thing is, seeing them thru the “big window” was pretty effing amazing. I mean, Jacques Cousteau’s grandson came thru, in awe, he had never seen one before. Why stress them even more? (Money, of course) At that point, I cut back my volunteering drastically, but felt that it still was a way to impact people thru tours behind the scenes…

    They announced they were bringing in dolphins. I was going to reach out to some filmmakers I knew about a fundraiser for the aquarium in conjunction with the new exhibit, until I learned that it was going to be a “Seaworld” sort of show.

    Initially, some of the belugas were rescued from a Mexican amusement park where they had a rollercoaster going over there pool countless times a day. (Belugas are very sensitive to sound) and they are arctic animals, but the water was supposedly 70 degrees. One of the Belugas had a sore that would not heal, turned out it was bone cancer. The Univ of GA Vet hospital worked in partnership with the aquarium to develop medication that would withstand salt water. (Something positive)

    I get that Belugas in captivity probably would not fare well being released, but to continue to attempt to acquire them from the wild as well as breeding them is just wrong. I don’t believe we need to be so selfish as to use the excuse of “education” to teach people about the world. I used to be really proud that I was recognized as an exceptional volunteer there. I haven’t set foot in the place in ages, so no idea of my name is still on the wall of honor.

    It is sad that so much was put into the facility and it has de-volved to such a manner where it is about revenue.

    1. Paul Slabaugh June 10, 2015 at 7:30 pm

      That was an amazing account of their devolvement! It parallels what happened to the entire industry. It incrementally became a carnivalesque farce from its roots of respect. What can we learn from these animals became what can we get away with to bring more profit. You aren’t the only good man lost in the shuffle. Money speaks louder than compassion 🙁

    2. Dear Atlanta Girl,

      Thank you for sharing your story. I hope you are continuing to educate people about dolphins and whales. Best, Lori Marino

  7. Don’t know much about this type of whale but that doesn’t matter. Humans can entertain themselves without abusing animal attraction.

  8. Sarah peterson June 12, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    FAILURE TO THRIVE???? why is this not sinking in that there are wils animals, no matter how long-penned!

    1. Dear Sarah – You’ve made our point! The reason these whales are failing to thrive is because they are wild animals forced into a situation to which they are not adapted. Thank you for your comment. Best, Lori Marino

  9. We need to focus on protecting the wild beluga population by STOPPING the captivity trade. They are causing this wonderful animal to be endangered and/or extinct in the interest of making money off of it. Protect the wild population and DENY Georgia Aquarium’s appeal of the denial of the permit to import 18 wild caught belugas. Let’s NOT open the captivity floodgates by changing the law. Instead let’s boycott the entertainment marine parks such as Georgia Aquarium, Seaworld and others who try to increase the captivity of these magnificent animals. They belong in the wild and deserve increased protection from the captivity trade worldwide.

  10. […] Both times, the Georgia Aquarium professed complete mystery as to what had happened. But Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center, who studies the brains of dolphins, says those earlier deaths were no mystery.  […]

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