Animal rescue and conservation are an important part of the daily routine at zoological facilities. If zoological facilities themselves do not rescue animals and operate conservation programs, they often partner with and support organizations that do. Those who strongly oppose zoos often don’t accept that zoos contribute to animal conservation and act in the animal’s best interest. This is the case with Morgan, an orca with a hearing disability, who has lived at Loro Parque since she was deemed unreleasable.
The Case of Morgan
Morgan, an orca, was found starving and completely exhausted in the Netherlands’ Wadden Sea. Because there was little chance that she would survive on her own, a Dutch rescue team organized a rescue operation in order to save her from an agonizing death. At this point Morgan became the property of the Netherlands. Many rescued animals are released back into the wild after they are rescued and rehabilitated, but in a few extreme cases the animal may be deemed un-releasable if it cannot survive on its own. Typically the decision of whether or not to release an animal is made with scientific and veterinary input; however the final decision is made by the government, not the facility or rescue group that performed the rescue and rehabilitation. In this case the Supreme Court of the Netherlands was responsible for determining whether Morgan was fit to be released or not.
Neither the Dolphinarium Harderwijk, nor Loro Parque or SeaWorld, nor any other facility decided whether she would be released or not. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands ultimately decided that Morgan should remain in at Loro Parque. This decision based on statements by independent experts.
Ever since this the Supreme Court of the Netherlands made their decision, rumors spread worldwide that Morgan is owned by SeaWorld or Loro Parque. Morgan’s ownership has never changed; however, activists perpetuated rumors spread their propaganda and to advance their own personal agendas. The accusation that Morgan is owned by SeaWorld or Loro Parque is wrong, and is just one of several that will be refuted here.
Morgan’s family was found and she can be reunited with them
This is inaccurate. While a group that COULD have been her family was found, the familial relationship was not proven. Even if Morgan’s family was located, it is not certain that the family would accept her with her condition and they may abandon her, leaving her to die. Morgan was left to die once before, so this outcome is very likely to occur again . We do not know how orca family groups respond to disabilities, and it would be a huge risk to reunite her with her family for social reasons alone, not to mention the physiological threats to her well being.
Morgan can survive in the wild
Even if Morgan didn’t have a severe hearing deficit, she wouldn’t be able to survive on her own in the wild. Because Morgan was very young when she was found, she did not know how to hunt. Teaching an Orca in human care to hunt live fish is difficult, as was observed with Keiko; he never fully stopped relying on his trainers. Orcas hunt co-operatively and feed on herring (Domenici et al. 2000), which requires a special technique of stunning the fish with tail slaps (Similae, 2005). This hunting technique is a learned behavior within the orca groups and is difficult to be taught in human care.
Furthermore, with her hearing deficit, as discussed by several independent scientists, she would not be able to hunt collectively with other orcas because she wouldn’t be able to hear their vocalizations and respond accordingly.
Morgan cannot be part of the shows or a breeding program
Activists have tried to prohibit Loro Parque from allowing Morgan to participate during orca presentations, but they have failed. They claimed that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) would only allow scientific research to be conducted with Morgan and nothing else. This was inaccurate because as a precondition for transport, CITES had to allow that Morgan to be a part of scientific research that benefits the understanding of the species and the conservation of conspecifics in the wild. Loro Parque fulfilled this precondition, as Morgan has participated in several research projects that will benefit the killer whale populations around the world.
Additionally, a breeding ban for Morgan or any other orca could never be implemented because as it violates European legislation. Within the European Union zoos must satisfy the biological and conservational requirements of the individual species, inter alia, “by providing species specific enrichment of the enclosures, and maintaining a high standard of animal husbandry with a developed program of preventive and curative veterinary care and nutrition” (COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 1999/22/EC, Article 3). A breeding ban for any orca in European human care would result in not satisfying the biological requirements of the individual species.
Morgan is bullied by the other whales
Morgan is socially integrated into the Loro Parque’s pod. Like every healthy and functional pod, the group has a hierarchy like they would have in the wild. Hierarchal challenges occur in both human care and in the wild. Killer whales can be rough during these hierarchal challenges and may sustain minor injuries, such as rake marks. Orcas are a member of the family Delphinidae, which includes all dolphins and a few other whale species. Most members of this family use their teeth in physical communication. However, this is not a sign of bullying or antagonistic behavior; it is part of the animals’ way of life. It’s not unnatural that killer whales have rake marks; stranded adult killer whales found in the wild commonly have rake marks inflicted by other orcas.
Morgan is Suicidal and Beaches herself
Activists recorded a video and, in conjunction with misinformation, gained media attention by claiming that Morgan was so miserable in human care that she actively tried to commit suicide by beaching herself at Loro Parque. It is this “simple” mechanism in which anti-zoo-activists work with the press to publish one-sided propaganda. Unfortunately, there are journalists who do not check their facts or the source of the facts, but publish the story anyway. I have also documented this behavior during the last few years, before and after the show at Loro Parque. I noticed that it was always part of a playful interaction with either another member of the group or with the trainers. I was not alone, as thousands of people saw it, too; no one ever considered it to be an abnormal behavior. Suddenly this video pops up and activists acted as if it was a new observation with the intention of misinterpreting a completely normal behavior to target dolphinariums. Furthermore there was a video at dolphinaria.truth explaining this behavior.
The behavior we see in the video depicts social beaching play (Guinet, 1990). In the wild, dolphins learn intentional beaching techniques to catch their prey and also integrate this behavior into their social play. In human care, dolphins learn to beach for medical exams and also integrate it into their social play. It is not unusual, abnormal, or harmful for the animals in the wild or for animals in human care. This behavior is well documented by science, therefore refuting any claim that this behavior is attributable to living conditions.
Members of the dolphin family are very playful. They integrate many different things into their playing, including learned behavior. Morgan and the youngest whale Adán have a great relationship at Loro Parque, and often play together. George Goldspink, a former orca trainer at Loro Parque and independent expert in animal behavior, discussed the interactions between Morgan and Adán. “I compared it to two young children that just loved being in each other’s company playing around”, he said. He continued to describe the play between the two whales, “A few reasons whales would slide out include: principally, playtime, Morgan and Adán would often interact with one whale on the slide out and the other in the water, and then they would ‘drop in’” on each other, almost like a game of hide and seek. Other reasons include inquisitiveness, if Morgan can’t see the trainers as they are backstage, maybe discussing the plans for a show or evaluating how a show went, she would slide out and try and peek through the gap in the stage to see the trainers!”. Goldspink emphasized that “this slide out behavior is in no way abnormal for her or the other whales.” Additionally, Dr. Kelly Jaakkola, the Director of Research for the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) and a highly respected cetacean scientist with great expertise, stated that “Morgan is not nearly the only animal that does this. At the Dolphin Research Center, our young dolphins often beach themselves for short periods of time. In fact, they make a game out of it.” George Goldspink also saw other whales at Loro Parque doing it: “I did observe this sliding out behavior, not only in Morgan but in other whales as well, particularly Adán, and sometimes Skyla and Kohana as well.”
Loro Parque published a statement and pointed out that, “The video represents just a few minutes of images of Morgan, right after the end of a regular presentation in OrcaOcean. It is absolutely illogical and absurd to assume that the length and the quality of such video would be sufficient to make a conclusion and declaration of such nature.” They furthermore explain: “On numerous occasions, when the trainer gives free time to the animals so that they can enjoy the interacting that is part of their social behavior, the animals might repeat spontaneously the jumps they have learned, or leave the water or even slide across the stage. This is a totally natural behavior which is often accompanied by dynamic play. To speculate that this represents a sign of stress demonstrates utter ignorance about the natural behavior of this species.” We know that animals only play when all their needs are satisfied. A suffering animal would not play, because it first wants to fulfill its important needs. An animal that is starving wouldn’t play. An animal that suffers from a disease wouldn’t play. An animal that lacks some important need would not play.
Animal rights activists would have the public believe that the playing behavior shown in the video is abnormal. This may be an intentional deception, or may be the result of ignorance of what is normal dolphin behavior. . Either way, journalists need to check facts scrupulously before publishing such reports, or risk harming the credibility of themselves and the medium they write for.
Morgan will do better in a bay pen
The water of OrcaOcean, where Morgan lives at Loro Parque, comes straight from the Atlantic Ocean and is particularly filtered in order to protect the animals against the pollution of the oceans. Putting her in a sea pen, a bay pen, or a floating cage would change the environment that she has become accustomed to. Water quality is important for the husbandry of dolphins and subjecting her to a sea pen would increase the risk of toxins from pollution entering her environment. Additionally, she would be subjected to other threats, such as microbial infection, that could be life threatening. Furthermore, it’s not sure if Morgan would have more space in a sea pen. Keiko’s pen was “roughly the size of Shamu Stadium’s main pool” (Simmons, 2014). So a sea pen would be roughly the same size as her current habitat, have worse water quality, and could expose her to pollution, toxins, and infection. In addition, the fact of the matter is that Morgan would still be in human care; she would still be dependent on humans. How is that really an improvement?
If animal rights activists’ wishes were met, Morgan’s situation would be a lot worse than it is now. At the moment Morgan is living a healthy life at Loro Parque, which has been shown by Christopher Dold (SeaWorld) Andrew G. Greenwood (International Zoo Veterinary Group), Dr. Geraldine Lacave (Marine Mammal Veterinary Services) and David Perpiñán (Loro Parque).
All her biological requirements are fulfilled and she is thriving despite her disability. Our top priority must always be animal welfare by scientifically managing animals based on what we have learned through scientific research. We must understand Animal Rights activits’ arguments so that we can clear up misinformation by refuting their claims with scientific research.
Because of my journalistic work I had the chance to see her quite often and I am more than happy about her fantastic development and how well she’s doing. Loro Parque definitely is the best place for her. We as a community of people who understand the importance of zoological facilities should stand for the scientific management of animals in human care and promote the benefits of zoos and their conservation programs. This is something ZooNation.org stands for, and for this reason I am honored to have written this article for this organization.