Bringing Together Science and Animal Law

The Kimmela Center presents a new Continuing Law Education (CLE) webinar: “Using Law and Science to Help Animals.”

Produced jointly with the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School. The one-hour webinar features Kimmela Director Lori Marino and Clinical Professor Kathy Hessler, Director of the Animal Law Clinic & Aquatic Animal Law Initiative at Lewis & Clark. Together, they discuss how lawyers can effectively use science in their animal protection legal work.

Science and animal law are closely linked, as much of animal law is based on the science of welfare, animal cognition and even genetics. Thus, scientific knowledge and familiarity can empower animal law and policy efforts in the great majority of cases.

Kimmela is committed to bringing relevant scientific knowledge to practicing attorneys, law students and scholars and advocates to help them learn how to employ scientific knowledge to optimize their work for animals.

This webinar is part of an ongoing project being conducted in collaboration with the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy, an organization dedicated to advancing animal law and policy to protect animals.

The webinar is approved for one Oregon continuing legal education credit. (Check for eligibility in other states.)

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.

Dolphin and Whale Sanctuaries: Still Just a Field of Dreams

I just returned from the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Captive Wildlife Conference in Burbank, CA, where prominent scientists, veterinarians and advocates converged to discuss the ongoing effort to end the exploitation of captive wildlife.

The first day was dedicated to presentations on elephant welfare in zoos and circuses and the critically important role sanctuaries continue to play in getting captive elephants out of exploitive and abusive situations and into a more naturalistic and caring setting. There are only a handful of legitimate elephant sanctuaries around the globe and only two in the United States. Clearly, we need many more qualified sanctuaries for elephants and other wild animals.

On Day Two, I spoke on a panel about marine mammal captivity with Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, Blackfish producer Manny Oteyza, and Lincoln O’Barry of Ric O’ Barry’s Dolphin Project about the fact that even though the situation for elephants, big cats, bears and primates in exploitive captive facilities is deplorable, it’s still not as bad as it is for dolphins and whales. There’s one simple reason for this: While there are at least a few sanctuaries for land-based animals, there are no dolphin or whale sanctuaries anywhere in the world. Not one.

Sure, there are captive facilities that call themselves sanctuaries, but that does not make them legitimate havens of protection and lifelong care. Rather, they are typically places that exploit the dolphins under the guise of the title “sanctuary”. A genuine sanctuary provides an environment in which the residents can lead some semblance of a satisfactory life closer to the wild setting. In a real sanctuary like PAWS, the only interest is in the welfare of the residents; they are not used as a means to an end – i.e. for profit or publicity.

While there are at least a few sanctuaries for land-based animals, there are no dolphin or whale sanctuaries anywhere in the world.Those of us who are working to phase out dolphin and whale captivity for entertainment in places like SeaWorld have to contend with the reality that even if we were successful we’d have nowhere to relocate them. Captive dolphins and whales cannot just be dumped back into the ocean. Even those who are good candidates for eventual release need rehabilitation in a more natural setting where they can feel the tides and shifting temperatures of the ocean, regain some physiological conditioning and autonomy, and learn to survive. Moreover, given that the majority of captive dolphins and whales will not be releasable, they will depend upon sanctuaries for care throughout the rest of their lives.

In a recent blog post in The Dodo, Dr. Naomi Rose expressed concern about the precarious situation in which captive dolphins and whales find themselves. Even if places like SeaWorld decide to end captive entertainment, she argues, there will need to be a transition plan for these animals so that they don’t end up “going from the frying pan into the fire” – like being sold off to entertainment corporations overseas. Those of us who advocate for dolphin and whale freedom have to be ready to offer a legitimate practical solution. We do not want the lack of sanctuaries to be the show-stopper for the long term effort to phase out dolphin and whale exploitation.

So while signs of movement and change are encouraging, we need to add the missing component to our efforts: the funding and building of legitimate sanctuaries for dolphins and whales in this country and around the world.

The National Aquarium is already discussing possibilities for creating a sanctuary for the bottlenose dolphins they currently hold so that they can live out their lives under better circumstances. And there are other protocols for rehabilitation and release which have been employed successfully around the world by organizations such as Born Free Foundation. All of these efforts demonstrate the feasibility of rehabilitating dolphins and whales in sea pen sanctuaries.

There are also already plans, protocols and even identified locations for some captive orcas, such as Lolita, who has been held at the Miami Seaquarium for over 40 years after being taken from her natural home as a member of the Puget Sound southern resident population of orcas.

More of us in the marine mammal community need to focus our attention on the need to develop and implement plans and campaigns for creating sanctuaries.

Currently, dolphin and whale sanctuaries are just a field of dreams. But, if we build it, they will come.