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.

NOAA Says No to the Georgia Aquarium

In a stunning victory for the anti-captivity movement this week, the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia and share them around the country with SeaWorld and Shedd Aquarium.

It would have been the first time since 1993 that an aquarium had imported dolphins and whales directly from the wild. And it would have set a major precedent, regressing to a time before public outcry forced the captivity industry to agree to stop capturing marine mammals to put on display.

Animal protection groups organized major opposition to the Georgia Aquarium’s plan. The Kimmela Center played a key role in providing scientific support for opposition arguments and reaching out to colleagues in the scientific community. Executive Director Lori Marino helped to create and submit a Scientists Statement Opposing the Beluga Imports by the Georgia Aquarium to NOAA last year and it was signed by nearly thirty prominent marine mammal scientists. She also provided testimony opposing the application at a public hearing last October.

A decision by NOAA has been expected since February. And word went around in May that NOAA was expected to give a thumbs-up to the Georgia Aquarium any day.

But this week, NOAA issued its decisions: No to the Georgia Aquarium. The agency described its decision as having hinged on three key criteria:

* NOAA Fisheries is unable to determine whether or not the proposed importation, by itself or in combination with other activities, would have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock, the population that these whales are taken from;

* NOAA Fisheries determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit;

* NOAA Fisheries determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.

More details from NOAA on their decision are here, where the agency also describes what comments from the public were the most impactful:

The comments that were most helpful to our decision-making process addressed the specific MMPA and regulatory criteria that we must use to make a decision and discussed why the commenter felt the application did or did not meet them.

The comments we received pertaining to humaneness determinations (capture and transport), the age of the animals at capture, the status of the Sakhalin-Amur beluga stock, and the effects of the ongoing capture operation on beluga stocks were directly related to the MMPA issuance criteria and considered further in the decision making process.

In general, comments regarding opposition to captivity were not considered substantive as the MMPA allows for public display of marine mammals.  Also, the comments we received related to the care and maintenance of marine mammals in captivity fall under the purview of the Animal Welfare Act and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, so we were unable to respond to them as part of this process.

The Georgia Aquarium issued a statement saying they have yet to decide whether or not they will appeal. On NOAA’s decision, they offered the standard talking points used to justify keeping wildlife in captivity:

“Sadly, the decision places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo. The animals in question would help to ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care in the U.S. for the purposes of education, research and conservation.

“Through ongoing conservation and research efforts, our team is proactively seeking solutions to learn all we can to protect these incredible animals in the wild in the face of increasing challenges to their survival as the effects of climate change, increased shipping and exploration for natural resources impact them in their natural habitats.”

Neither the Georgia Aquarium, nor SeaWorld, nor any other marine mammal captive facility has, in fact, presented any evidence that they are helping to protect and “conserve” belugas. It is striking that the criteria NOAA used to deny the imports directly mention the possible negative impact upon the whales by the Georgia Aquarium’s proposed actions.

NOAA’s decision is not the end of the story. Beyond the fact that the Georgia Aquarium may well appeal the decision, there is the question of what happens to the belugas now.

However, this decision has been important for preventing the proliferation of the international trade in wild-caught marine mammals in the U.S., which the Georgia Aquarium was hoping to reinstate.

The Georgia Aquarium Plunders the Oceans in the Name of Conservation

By Lori Marino, Ph.D., Emory University Center for Ethics and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, and Thomas I. White, Ph.D., Conrad N. Hilton Chair in Business Ethics, Loyola Marymount University.

On June 15th, the Georgia Aquarium quietly filed an application for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia into the United States. They plan to keep some of them for themselves and to distribute the rest among three SeaWorld facilities, the Shedd Aquarium and, eventually, the Mystic Aquarium and are receiving public comments on this issue until midnight October 29th at

The last time a U.S. aquarium took marine mammals directly from the wild was in 1993, when the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago set off a firestorm of protest by capturing some Pacific white-sided dolphins from California waters. Since then, in order to avoid pubic controversy over their profitable marine mammal entertainment programs, U.S. marine parks have abided by a self-imposed moratorium on the capture and import of wild marine mammals. Instead, they have focused on captive breeding to stock their pools and keep the shows going. In seeking to import 18 wild-caught belugas the Georgia Aquarium has abandoned the moratorium on taking wild dolphins and whales. If the import is approved, it will roll the clock back to an era when U.S. marine parks regularly removed wild dolphins, orcas, and whales from their families in the oceans to put them into shows.

The Georgia Aquarium says that the import is all about conservation. But the truth is that the import is about reinvigorating a stalled beluga captive breeding program in order to sustain and grow the population of popular belugas at U.S. marine parks. Currently, there are only 34 belugas in captivity in the United States. The 18 wild Russian belugas the Georgia Aquarium wants to import would push that number to above 50, infusing the existing captive population with new genes, and growing the population to a size that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums considers right for a successful captive breeding program.

Such “species survival programs” are justified on the basis of conservation. But, ironically, the beluga population in the Sea of Okhotsk from which the Georgia Aquarium 18 were captured is healthy (in fact, a condition for receiving an import permit is that the capture will not endanger the target population). In contrast, the longevity and survival of belugas is much more threatened in captive settings like the Georgia Aquarium, where programs to breed and sustain the beluga population have been unsuccessful.

Infant belugas fare very poorly when born into an artificial environment where their mothers lack the social support they would enjoy from sisters, aunts and friends in their natural setting. The last baby born at the Georgia Aquarium died at just a few days old. Overall, belugas in captivity lead more stressful and less healthy lives than their wild counterparts. The bottom line is that most captive breeding programs are not about conservation of animals in the wild; they’re about conservation of zoo and marine park profits.

Report on the NOAA Beluga Import Public Hearing

Last Friday, October 12th, at the public hearing held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, MD, Kimmela Executive Director Lori Marino joined other researchers, legal experts, advocates and conservationists to present her objections to the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import wild-caught beluga whales for public display.

During the three-hour meeting, various individuals from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Georgia Aquarium, and Atlanta-based teachers affiliated with the aquarium testified to the educational benefits of marine mammal public displays and claimed that the welfare of the captured belugas would not be at risk during the multi-transfer plane transports from Russia to the United States.

Advocates for the belugas presented evidence that the wild-captures and transfers are inhumane and therefore in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Courtney Vail, Campaigns and Programs Manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) testified that if the permit were granted to the Georgia Aquarium, it would set a dangerous precedent for future beluga populations.

“The Georgia Aquarium’s decision to seek wild belugas from Russia,” Vail told NOAA, “is at best regressive and at worst irresponsible in contributing to the continuing international trade in belugas, which undermines the conservation and welfare of this species worldwide.”

Vail went on to describe how the Georgia Aquarium has violated several conservation requirements put in place to prevent harm to the species in the wild.

Lori Marino addressed the question of whether there is educational value to beluga public displays. She emphasized that the Georgia Aquarium has not met the minimal requirements for education required by the MMPA and should be denied the permit on that basis alone.

“Despite the claims of the Georgia Aquarium that this beluga import will serve an educational purpose they have provided no legitimate evidence that any real education is taking place during visits to marine mammal public displays,” she said. “They, and their co-applicants, are not meeting the minimal standards set by the MMPA for education.”

Her full testimony is here.

Other presenters included Natalie Prosin, Executive Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, who said that beluga whales are so cognitively and socially complex that they should be considered legal persons. She served notice in her testimony that the Nonhuman Rights Project is preparing to argue for legal personhood for several large-brained highly intelligent mammals, including belugas, in 2013.

Ric O’Barry, the former dolphin trainer and dolphin advocate for the past 30 years who is featured in the movie “The Cove”, said he was stunned that the Georgia Aquarium could even suggest that removing whales from a wild population, warehousing them for several years in pens, and then charging admission for people to see them promotes education and conservation.

O’Barry’s comments echoed the disbelief of all of the advocates about how the Georgia Aquarium could claim they have met the requirements of the MMPA.

The period of online public commentary continues until October 29th. There is still time to make a difference by going to to submit substantive arguments opposing the permit.