Toxin killed two belugas at Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium: re­port

Times Colonist - - The Capital / B.c. - LINDA GIVETASH

VAN­COU­VER — A toxin was the cause of death for two bel­uga whales at the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium last Novem­ber, but the ex­act sub­stance couldn’t be iden­ti­fied.

The aquar­ium an­nounced the con­clu­sion of a five-month investigation Thurs­day, say­ing that an investigation also de­ter­mined the toxin was likely in­tro­duced by food, wa­ter or through hu­man in­ter­fer­ence.

The belugas, 21-year-old Qila and her mother, 30-year-old Aurora, died nine days apart last Novem­ber from what of­fi­cials said was a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness.

The aquar­ium’s head vet­eri­nar­ian, Dr. Martin Haulena, said in an in­ter­view that the death of the belugas was dev­as­tat­ing for staff and the pub­lic.

“It’s like when you lose a close fam­ily mem­ber and you go through this clas­sic mourn­ing syn­drome,” he said, adding that the fi­nal re­sults of the investigation have helped bring clo­sure to the in­ci­dent.

Haulena said the toxin was likely in­tro­duced to the whales in the weeks or days lead­ing up to their deaths.

It’s not un­com­mon for a toxin to be dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify, he said, be­cause it could have been me­tab­o­lized quickly by the an­i­mals, leav­ing the sub­stance un­de­tectable.

De­spite the un­cer­tain re­sult, Haulena said the investigation has helped staff im­prove the safety of the other mam­mals in their care.

The fa­cil­ity cur­rently houses three other cetaceans — a false killer whale, a Pa­cific white-sided dol­phin and a har­bour por­poise.

Staff were con­cerned at around the time of the deaths that the other an­i­mals were at risk, Haulena said, but sev­eral risk fac­tors high­lighted in the investigation have since been ad­dressed.

The aquar­ium said in a state­ment that is has taken sev­eral steps to pro­tect the re­main­ing an­i­mals, in­clud­ing en­hanced food screen­ing, over­haul­ing its wa­tertreat­ment sys­tems and real-time test­ing of the cir­cu­lat­ing wa­ter.

The aquar­ium said it is also sig­nif­i­cantly up­dat­ing its se­cu­rity to mon­i­tor perime­ter ac­cess and re­duce po­ten­tial threats of hu­man in­ter­fer­ence.

Haulena said there is no ev­i­dence that any­one in­ten­tion­ally harmed the belugas.

Bi­o­log­i­cal sam­ples col­lected in the investigation are be­ing kept on file for fu­ture tests in the event new tech­niques or ideas to de­ter­mine what hap­pened are de­vel­oped, he said.

CP

Qila re­ceives a her­ring from a trainer at the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium in 2011.

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