Rescued Beluga Calf Has a Chance Thanks to Zoos

Estimated to be no more than four weeks old, a beluga calf was found stranded in Alaska’s Cook Inlet alone on September 30th. With no adult whales in sight, after an unsuccessful attempt to encourage the little male into deeper water and an assessment from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Carrie Goertz DVM, the decision was made to move him to Alaska’s only permitted marine mammal rescue center: the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Currently also caring for two rescued sea otters, two harbor seals, and an orphaned walrus calf, Alaska SeaLife Center’s animal care staff is experienced in rehabilitating marine animals. They literally work around the clock, regardless of the conditions. Whether late into the night, in freezing temperatures, throughout the day, or stretching over holiday weekends, the veterinarians and care staff have an important job: do everything they can to give their patients a second chance.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

For the recently rescued beluga calf who is already swimming on his own, that means keeping watch and recording his behavior 24-hours a day, hydrating him with an electrolyte solution every two hours, and just as regularly feeding him formula that replicates the nutrition he should be receiving from his mother’s milk. It also means calling in other professionals from around the continent to ensure the best possible chance that the little whale recovers. In just a few short days, experts from SeaWorld, Vancouver Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, and Georgia Aquarium flew to Alaska to assist.

The update provided by the Alaska SeaLife Center on their Facebook page on October 6th also mentioned that the beluga is strong enough now for veterinarians to begin to look for underlying health problems. Blood samples, various images, several cultures, and more diagnostic tests will be ordered, collected, and analyzed in the coming days and weeks in an attempt to understand why the calf was orphaned and stranded in the first place.

The Alaska SeaLife Center, a zoological facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, will continue to be important in this little one’s treatment and rehabilitation. But, even before he stranded, zoos were already playing a major role in his rescue and recovery.

Resident animals in zoos and aquariums help animal care specialists and veterinarians understand the behavior and physiology of their species. It is no coincidence that the individuals invited to Alaska to contribute to the care of the rescued beluga at the SeaLife Center are members of teams that have worked extensively with belugas within their care.

Beluga whales at SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium have been taught to voluntarily participate in healthcare sessions, also known as husbandry sessions, through positive reinforcement.

Animal care specialists from the facilities listed above have trained belugas to offer behaviors that allow veterinarians to collect blood samples, gastric samples, blow/breath cultures, ultrasound images, fecal samples, urine samples, and more. This data collected from several animals across multiple facilities allows researchers and veterinarians to create a ‘baseline’ which depicts the normal levels of white and red blood cell count, cholesterol, bacteria, stomach acids, hormones, etc. for healthy beluga whales.

When a rescued animal is brought in, like in the case of this Alaskan calf, veterinarians are only able to properly diagnose him because of the information previously collected and studied. After analyzing his blow cultures, the radiographs and sonogram images of his intestines, lungs, and bones, and running a full blood panel, they will compare and contrast his results with the baseline data collected over many years in order to accurately understand what ailment he has and how to treat him successfully.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

During his rehabilitation, he will continue to need the electrolyte solution and specialized formula as a milk substitute until he is old enough to eat fish on his own. Mind you, the perfect formula for a barely-month-old beluga calf is not found in a convenient powder on the shelf of a grocery store. Instead, the recipe had to be produced and shared among zoological facilities.

In order to create said recipe, veterinarians studied the milk of pregnant and nursing female belugas in zoos and aquariums, noting fat content, proteins, antibodies, and immunoglobulins.

When new calves are born, their animal care staff members tirelessly begin recording how often they breathe, how many times the calves nurse from their mothers each hour, and for how long they latch on during the periods of nursing. They take daily, or weekly, or monthly measurements as the calves grow, keeping track of their lengths, girths, and overall weights, giving the scientific community an inside look at accurate beluga growth rates. They note when their teeth erupt from their gums, when they begin to eat fish for the first time, and then when they consume it consistently and are considered fully weaned, allowing scientists to understand the behavioral patterns of young animals.

It is all of this information combined along with the dedication of the zoological professionals currently caring for him that gives this little beluga that stranded in the Cook Inlet in Alaska the best chance at surviving.

And this example is just one of thousands. The same can be said for black bears and bobcats orphaned by hunters, for opossums and foxes hit by cars, for sea turtles and manatees maimed by boat propellers, and eagles and hawks sickened by lead poisoning. Through the commitment of veterinarians, researchers, and animal care professionals both past and present, rescued animals receive a second chance at life.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

On his way toward his own second chance, this beluga calf still has many obstacles to overcome and so the public is reminded to remain cautiously hopeful as so much about his future is unclear.

But, this is certain: without the knowledge of the zoological professionals privileged to have worked with belugas elsewhere and the efforts of the Alaska SeaLife Center team members today, this little whale would already be gone.

Instead, he is in the hands of world-renowned rescuers. For this reason, he stands a chance. Good luck to the little whale and to all of those dedicated to his care. Best wishes for his future.

Rebuttal: Thinking Critically About Anti-zoo Images

Recently, you may have seen that sources like the Washington Post, The Guardian, and IFLScience published stories about a book released by a Canadian photographer who traveled across Europe photographing animals in zoological facilities. Now, I won’t speak out against said book as I have not read it and, therefore, it would be improper of me to do so.

However, I will speak about some of the images found in the aforementioned articles. More importantly, I’m going to ask you to think critically about them and this situation. So take a moment to click on the links above and glance over the some of the images we’ll discuss.

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Photo of a polar bear playing in its beautiful exhibit at the San Diego Zoo to start us out on the right note.

Okay, ready? Good.

If the articles and interviews promoting the book are any indication, the photographer has published a biased, one-sided view of the life of animals in human care. At first glance, most of the photos seem haunting, telling of a captive animal’s endlessly depressed state, complete and total lack of stimulation, or inadequate living environment.

Judging from comments via social media, some members of the public were, in fact, disturbed by the images. But, I am here to remind you that while the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, what is not pictured is worth at least twice as much.

I’ll start by reminding you that the images captured and featured in these articles only display a fraction of that animal’s day.

According to the ever-reliable internet, a standard DSL camera can take a picture in roughly 1/8000th of a second. That means that each image captured and featured portrays exactly 0.000125 seconds of that animal’s day (PS. That’s WAY faster than a human being even And being that there are over 86,000 seconds in a day, each photo portrays a negligible percentage of not only that animal’s day, but also an infinitely tiny, microscopically minuscule fraction of the animal’s lifetime.

I could keep going with all of the mathematics, I suppose, but instead of boring you, I’ll encourage you to ask yourself: What happened during the rest of the day?

Is the reason the jaguar is right in front of the glass because his keepers put scent enrichment on the window to stimulate his olfactory senses?

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(This image was featured in article by the Washington Post. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Are these three arctic wolves lazily laying on their platform because they just spent an hour scouring their exhibit for the pieces of food their caretakers painstakingly placed in order to encourage foraging behavior?

When the dolphin in The Guardian article finished the interaction with the guests, was he or she given his or her favorite toy for the rest of the afternoon?

Now, I can almost hear some of you screaming at me, “You’re just making that up!” So, let me say that I understand that there is no proof that these things took place. But, while I have no proof that it did happen, you have no proof that it did not. These activities are absolutely possibilities being that zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are required to provide animals in their collections.

So, this is where I am asking you to think critically.

If I had taken a picture of you at 3:43pm today, what were you doing during that minute? Were you sitting at your desk? Were you mowing the yard? Were you napping on the couch to the drone of a television? Is what you were doing at 3:43pm today an accurate representation of your entire existence? Is it the only activity you ever do?

No.

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It is not accurate to assume from this photo that this is the only behavior that this woman ever displays. Nor is it accurate to assume this is the only location in which she spends time. (photo from health.usnews.com)

Just because you were creating an Excel spreadsheet during that moment, does that inherently mean that you did not play video games at some other point during the day?

If you were mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the time, does that mean that you never play catch in the backyard with your son or daughter?

Were you biting your nails out of boredom? Does that mean you are never entertained by or interested in any other activity?

Regardless of who you are or what you were doing, the behavior you displayed at 3:43pm this afternoon is not a reflection of your existence as a whole.

Now, ask yourself: Why?

Why are the lechwe antelope from the Washington Post article indoors? Are you sure that this where they are kept all of the time? Or were they moved inside temporarily while their exhibit was renovated? Do they have access to an outdoor habitat as well as the one pictured so they have a choice between the two? Is it winter and the temperature outside is currently unsuitable for them? Were they moved inside to wait for a storm to pass? All are viable and realistic options.

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(This photo was featured in the Washington Post. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Why are the tigers in this French zoo peering out of their exhibit on their tiptoes? Was this photo taken first thing in the morning when the keepers are bringing them their breakfast? Is it all of a sudden disgraceful for a carnivore, or any individual animal or person for that matter, to look forward to eating? If so, I know some humans that should be very worried. Are their keepers bringing them a new toy and they can see them approaching? Is their excitement and anticipation disgusting? If it is, I guess we humans can’t be enthusiastic toward Christmas anymore.

Here’s one that I’m going to throw into this category because I have your attention and for the life of me I do not understand this: Why is it that every couple of years a photo of an animal sleeping at a zoo goes viral and is labeled as ‘depressing’? WHY???

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(This photo was featured in The Guardian. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Why is it that an image of a sleeping tree frog is meant to be ‘haunting’? Animals sleep no matter where they live. Lions sleep on the plains of Africa. Seals sleep near the shores of Maine. Tapirs sleep in the jungles of Malaysia. And, yes, they sleep in zoos too.

This is literally a fact: animals sleep.

If I take a picture of your dog sleeping at the foot of your bed, I have no evidence that your dog is not properly cared for. I only have evidence that he or she sleeps. That’s not profound. Neither is your picture of a sleeping walrus.

There. Now that it’s been discussed, ask yourself a tough one: Am I seeing only what they want me to see?

In what way could I have been manipulated into thinking worse about a situation?

The oldest trick in the book is to change a colorful image to that of only black and white. We as humans naturally associate bright colors with happiness and joy, but associate dull or dark shades and shadows with sadness or dreariness. What would the image look like if it had not been doctored?

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It took me all of twenty seconds to add a black and white filter to this image to make this little bird’s life look less vibrant.

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This is the original image I took of a weaver at home in a free-flight aviary at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Another favorite used by anti-zoo propagandists is simple: cropping and framing. What was going on outside of what the photographer published? Just because only one animal is in the frame, does not mean he or she was the only one in the exhibit. And just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean there weren’t toys in the environment. Though it might not be included in the image, you cannot prove that there is no fresh water or food for the animal to drink and eat. Even amateur, Instagram-only photographers show solely what they want their audiences to see.

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First of all- this gorilla is SLEEPING on some kind of straw substrate. That is all this image shows. It does not speak to the well-being of this gorilla, the adequacy of the exhibit, or the number of animals that accompany this individual. Just around the corner, in fact, in this several-acre exhibit, the rest of the troop foraged for food. The pictures below were taken within just a couple minutes of the picture above at AZA-accredited Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL.

 

I write this post not to shame this photographer, not to blindly defend these zoos from which the images originated, nor to stop you from raising questions about animals in captivity. I say this to remind you that anti-zoo propaganda is often manipulative and without balance. It is also nothing new and will happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, zoos are not perfect entities. And the people who work with animals in zoos know that. That’s why they’re constantly striving toward being better tomorrow than they were today.

What is often left out of the anti-zoo sentiment is that modern zoos dedicated to rescue, education, and conservation deserve a lot of praise. Species like the Przewalski’s horse, black-footed ferret, California condor, and more would be extinct without them. Hundreds of individual manatees, thousands of pinnipeds, and hundreds of thousands of birds have a second chance at life because they were rescued and rehabilitated at zoos. Every year, zoos donate millions of dollars to conservation projects around the world to try to ensure a future for endangered species. Scientists and researchers are even working with zoos to try to salvage functionally-extinct species through groundbreaking scientific techniques.

If you believe the public should have the opportunity to learn about animals, that individual animals deserve a second chance after injury or illness, and that the extinction of entire species is not an acceptable option, then don’t let these images fool you.

If you believe these things, you are a supporter of zoos.

 

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