Stamford Advocate

Weeks after beluga death, Mystic says another is very ill

- By Raga Justin

Weeks after the death of one beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium, officials said another that was recently transferre­d from a facility in Canada is in deteriorat­ing health.

The female whale has been ailing for a few weeks, the aquarium said in a Facebook post. Earlier this month, the aquarium reported another whale, 6-year-old Havok, had died after suffering from gastrointe­stinal issues during the move from the whales’ original Canadian facility.

The move and resulting sickness of the animals has caused controvers­y among animal rights activists, who say the whales should not have been transporte­d from the Ontario-based Marineland in the first place. Environmen­talists said that the move and separation from other whales can cause stress and anxiety.

But the aquarium said its facility remains the best place to house the whales, since they were born into captivity and would not survive in the wild.

“Mystic Aquarium is the best possible location for these animals: a worldclass facility with decades of marine mammal experience and a top-level understand­ing of beluga health and husbandry where they have the opportunit­y to contribute to research that can save endangered population­s,” the aquarium said Tuesday. “The veterinari­ans at our facility are dedicating the entirety of their time and energy to return this beluga to full health.”

Medical testing had revealed that the female whale, who has not yet been named, had several health complicati­ons, including a low white blood cell count and gastrointe­stinal issues. The aquarium said beluga experts from across the country will be converging on the facility to examine the whale.

The condition of the whale that died earlier this month had sounded alarms for environmen­talists and state legislator­s, including state Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford.

“I surely hope that the beluga that died and the beluga that is currently sick is not related to them having traveled,” Michel said. “The fact that they are displayed for entertainm­ent is counterpro­ductive. To me, it doesn't have the educationa­l value of simply going on a boat ride and doing some nature watching.”

Their move had also been embroiled in a legal challenge after the Darienbase­d animal rights group Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit last year against the federal agencies that allowed the transfer. It took the aquarium months to clear those legal hurdles and gain the requisite approval from both the U.S. and Canadian government.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, has been critical of the move and resulting fallout.

“I’m a little bit less shocked this morning than I was when Havok died,” Rose said. “But now there are so many questions.”

Top of mind for Rose is the timing of the whale’s illness and whether or not aquarium officials had known about her condition before her transport from Marineland.

But in any case, Rose said field biologists generally disapprove of moving whales for non-emergency purposes, even when they’re healthy. The complicate­d transfer from one facility to another — involving slings, trucks and planes — can be stressful enough to imperil the average beluga.

In order to gain clearance, Mystic Aquarium officials had to go through an import process that involved top government agencies like the National Marine Fisheries Service, which approved the research permit for the transfer. The aquarium has argued that it was providing a better environmen­t for the animals than Marineland.

“Mystic has tried to portray this as a rescue but it's not such a great rescue if they die,” Rose said.

The aquarium hosted an online auction last week, raising more than $3.4 million in funds to cover the cost of the whales’ care as well as conservati­on research, it said. One of the items it sold was naming rights for one of the belugas.

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