USDA Inspection of Mystic Aquarium After Whale’s Death Found ‘Critical Violations’
Second beluga imported from Canada has since died, and another is reportedly ill
March 31, 2022
MYSTIC, Conn. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture found three “critical violations” of the federal Animal Welfare Act during an inspection of Mystic Aquarium after the August 2021 death of a beluga whale imported from Canada.
Since that inspection, in September of 2021, another imported beluga whale died, on Feb. 11.
Paula Gladue, attending veterinarian for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), inspected the aquarium’s beluga facility last year. She was accompanied by Tonya Hadjis, a supervisory animal-care specialist, and Carolyn McKinnie, senior veterinary medical officer for Marine Mammals and Exotics.
The inspection followed the death of Havok, one of five beluga whales imported last May by Mystic Aquarium from Marineland in Ontario, Canada. Marineland is the last aquarium in Canada that continue to exhibit whales and dolphins. The facility is permitted to keep them but prohibited from acquiring new animals or allowing the resident animals to breed.
Naomi Rose, a whale biologist and marine mammal scientist with the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group the Animal Welfare Institute, said the USDA inspection of Mystic Aquarium was not routine.
“The reason they did that was because these animals were imported under a research permit,” she said. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, adopted in 1972, regulates the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the United States. Because the Mystic Aquarium belugas were imported on a research permit, “APHIS went in to look at the records very thoroughly after Havok died and what they found in those records was actually quite a surprise to everybody,” Rose said.
The inspection report, signed by Gladue, describes several serious issues, including three classified as “critical violations” of the Animal Welfare Act that required immediate attention, because they can cause harm to the animals in question. According to the report, Havok, who at 5 years old was a young whale, was on a 24-hour watch because of ongoing health problems. In the eight hours before his death, which occurred Aug. 6, 2021, he began exhibiting symptoms of extreme discomfort and distress, according to the report. The team monitoring Havok observed and documented the behaviors, but failed to notify the attending veterinarian, according to the report.
The report said Havok was rolling frequently, had “gaspy” respiration, water coming from his blowhole, and was seen “actively” bleeding from a wound two hours before his death.
Rose said a veterinarian should have been called sooner.
“They spent hours observing him and didn’t call the vet,” she said. “The point is, had they called the vet when he first started behaving oddly, which was the whole point of the 24/7 watch, there are two possibilities. One is, they might have relieved his discomfort, or whatever it was that was causing him to behave that way, with drugs, or they might have concluded that he was in fact dying and euthanized him.”
The report found, “The facility failed to provide adequate veterinary care by not using appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat diseases during Havok’s last eight hours.”
Havok also had poor vision and multiple wounds, according to the report, including an injury from a collision with one of the gates that separates the aquarium’s three pools. In June 2021 the gates between all three pools were opened, allowing the new whales to interact with the aquarium’s resident beluga whales.
According to the report, after the gates were opened, “A visitor dropped a foreign object in the main pool, which according to facility employees is not unexpected when there are a lot of visitors present at the exhibits. According to facility employees, in response to the foreign object, they closed the gate to the holding pool.” The handlers kept the other whales focused and still — a practice called stationing — but not Havok, according to the report.
The whale, which according to the report had been receiving treatment for two weeks for an ocular condition that resulted in compromised vision, “was startled by the net in the main pool and then swam toward the holding pool after the gate was shut. Havok swam straight into the gate,” re-opening a wound on his upper jaw and creating a new wound on his upper left mandible.
Rose said she did not understand why the gate separating the tanks was not left open, so Havok, who was known to be skittish, could escape the main tank if he was afraid or felt threatened.
“The most important thing is leave the new animal with a ‘bolt hole,’ somewhere to run away to,” she said. “So he spooks and runs for the back tank. Where else would he go? And he just smashes right into the gate.”
The third violation cited in the report was the condition of the pools, which resulted in several injuries that Havok sustained from bumping into the surface of his enclosure.
“Indoor and outdoor housing facilities for marine mammals must be structurally sound and must be maintained in good repair to protect the animals from injury,” the report stated.
Other issues cited in the report, but not deemed critical, were the lack of “consistent” shade to protect the whales from the sun, and the water quality in the tank, which contained elevated levels of “oxidation reduction potential,” a measurement of ozone in the water. Higher ozone levels, which were present from July 31, 2021, to Aug. 27, 2021, can irritate whales’ eyes, skin, and respiratory systems.
The report noted the shade issue was corrected in December 2021, and the water quality in the pools was addressed before a second inspection in February.
Rose was one of a group of marine mammal protection advocates in both the U.S. and Canada who lobbied against an import permit for the five belugas that were transferred. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency approved the permit to import the belugas, on the condition that they be used for research and not for public entertainment, although the whales would be on display at Mystic Aquarium.
The USDA also requires that live animals entering the country be examined by a veterinarian and declared fit for transport within 10 days of transport. Mystic asked to substitute three of the five belugas because a trio in the original group were ill. But at least one of the substitute whales — Havok — suffered from ulcers, although the official cause of his death was inflammatory bowel disease.
Rose said Havok’s poor physical health should have prevented him from traveling.
“He had ulcers, in his throat, in his stomach, in his intestines, gastrointestinal ulcers throughout his gastrointestinal system. But he also apparently had a recurring problem of inflammatory bowel disease,” she said. “He apparently had problems before he was transported from Marineland. You don’t subject an animal to intense stress while they’ve got that kind of condition. They knew about the ulcers, and they transported him anyway.”
The final necropsy report has not been released for Havana, the second imported whale that died in February. The condition and prognosis of a third ailing whale, also from Canada, is unknown.
Rose said she was waiting for the release of the final report on Havana. “We are waiting for the final report, because there is no cause of death yet,” she said. “And then we learned, when she died, that there was still a whale in ICU, the intensive care, but we don’t know who it is.”
Rose sent a letter dated March 25 to officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service, APHIS, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service raising concerns about the importation of whales that were not entirely healthy when they entered the country.
“We surmise that none of the whales were actually healthy in the weeks and possibly days prior to the transport,” she wrote. “Moreover, after postponing the transport multiple times and having already substituted three whales, Mystic Aquarium apparently felt it could no longer wait, nor make another request for a permit amendment. We further surmise that this resulted in an entirely artificial feeling of urgency and led to the rash decision to move Havok and the other four whales before they were truly robust enough to withstand the stress of transport (of which Mystic Aquarium, of all facilities, is well aware, given the research done there). We firmly believe Mystic was wrong to do so.”
Rose said one of the points of her letter was to prompt federal officials to require a detailed examination, not only by a veterinarian from the exporting aquarium, but also by an independent veterinarian to ensure that imported animals are truly healthy.
“They knew they were transporting a whale with a preexisting condition,” she said. “How could they do that, when they had committed in writing to only moving healthy whales? He was not healthy.”
Neither the USDA nor a Mystic Aquarium spokesperson responded to requests for comment.
This story was updated to include new information on April 1.
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