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.

Big Steps for African Elephants

So far, it has been a big year for African elephants.

Protecting Instead of Poaching

One of Africa’s most iconic species, the African elephant is the largest land animal in the world, with males sometimes standing at thirteen feet tall and weighing up to fourteen thousand pounds. Typically found traveling in herds and family groups, elephants are known for their dexterous trunks, remarkable intelligence, and their beautiful ivory tusks.

For centuries, their tusks have been prized for mounted trophies, jewelry, decorative carvings, musical instruments, and more. In fact, while several tusked species can be hunted and used for the ivory market, elephant ivory is considered the most desirable. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that nearly one hundred African elephants are killed every day in order to satisfy the ivory trade, a number publicized in their campaign entitled 96 Elephants.

On June 2, 2016, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service made a sweeping attempt to try to change that as they announced a near total ban of the African elephant ivory trade. Previous laws, while strict regarding the importation of new ivory, were rather lax in regards to ivory already in the United States. Many of those regulations were put in place in 1990 following a decade in which the African elephant population plummeted by nearly fifty percent. Today, this keystone species is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, with only an estimated 400,000 remaining in the wild.

The Swaziland Seventeen

The enhanced protective measure comes less than six months after the Fish and Wildlife Service approved the transport of seventeen African elephants to three United States zoos from Swaziland, a country in which previous elephant populations were completely wiped out by the late 1940s. Between the years of 1987 and 1994, elephants were reintroduced to Swaziland, a country about the size Connecticut, but were isolated from other elephant populations in Africa and restricted to fenced areas.

According to the information provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year, by 2014, the almost forty elephants living in Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve had “grown beyond existing space limitations” and presented “a significant risk to maintaining biodiversity in the parks” especially to the parks’ black rhinoceroses.

As a result, over a dozen elephants were scheduled to be culled (in other words, put to death).

Instead, the Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Witchita, intervened, partnering together to ensure a safe future for these elephants. While also pledging nearly a half million dollars to black rhino conservation, the zoos focused on the individual elephants’ futures, providing them with food and water while they remained in Swaziland and offering to transport them to the United States and take them in. Seventeen African elephants relocated to the three zoos this past March, completing what Gregg Hudson, the president of the Dallas Zoo, called “a rescue mission”.

A Sweet Surprise

About ten weeks later, the Dallas Zoo announced that one of the rescued elephants, Mlilo, gave birth to a male calf. Mlilo showed signs of a potential pregnancy before her relocation, but all of the tests were inconclusive. Despite the harsh conditions of her native Swaziland and the fact that breeding age male elephants of the area are vasectomized, Mlilo beat the odds as the 175 pound calf seems as though he was carried to term after a twenty-two month gestation period.

Mother and calf are not currently on exhibit, and may not be for several months, according to zoo officials, as they continue to receive veterinary and keeper care and bond with the other members of the herd. The little boy is said to be nursing, exploring, and vocalizing as normal.

“This really validates why it was so important we get them here,” Hudson said. Now at the Dallas Zoo, the rescued elephants and new calf, as well as the individuals that found homes at the Sedgwick County Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, will be constantly cared for by a team of animal care specialists as part of the zoos’ lifetime commitment to these individuals.

Zoos, conservationists, and animal lovers around the world still have a long way to go to solidify a bright future for this iconic species. It is likely that they will still struggle with habitat destruction and poaching for some time to come, but strides have been made in the right direction. As Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a recent statement, “We still have much to do to save this species, but today is a good day for the African elephant.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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Mlilo’s new calf. (Photo from Dallas Zoo’s website)

Learning Links

U.S. Adopts Near-Total Ivory Ban

Zoos Provide Homes for Elephants

Dallas Zoo Elephant Blog Updates