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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Animal rights activists fail in bid to save killer whale from amusement park and return her to the wild

By Graham Smith

Court battle: Morgan swims in her tank at the Dolfinarium in Harderwijk, Netherlands, earlier this month. A Dutch judge has ruled she will now be sent to a Spanish amusement park

Conservationists have failed to prevent a young killer whale from being sent to a Spanish amusement park.

The whale, called Morgan, was rescued by a Dutch dolphin park in 2010.

Animal activists had wanted the mammal to be returned to its native waters off the coast of Norway, but a court in Amsterdam yesterday ruled that it will instead be sent to Loro Parque on the island of Tenerife.

In a written ruling, Judge M de Rooij said chances of the female whale surviving in the wild were 'too unsure'.

She said: 'Morgan can be transferred to Loro Parque for study and education to benefit the protection or maintenance of the species.

A panel of experts assembled by the commercial dolphinarium in Harderwijk, Netherlands, where Morgan is currently living, argued that releasing the highly social animal would be tantamount to a 'death sentence' unless she could be returned to her native pod, or family.

They said she would be better off at Loro Parque on Tenerife, which has four other orcas.

Opposing experts for the 'Free Morgan' group said the dolphinarium was guided by financial interests, rather than concern for the animal's well-being, and that they will continue to seek Morgan's release.

'It's disgusting,' marine biologist Ingrid Visser said of the decision.

Visser, who travelled from New Zealand for the ruling, had also laid the groundwork to prepare Morgan for release in the Norwegian town of Stoe.

But dolphin park spokesman Bert van Plateringen said: 'We are very satisfied with today's ruling, which is what's best for Morgan.'

He said the cost of the rescue, upkeep and transfer of Morgan would be 'upward of a million euros' and that the dolphinarium would not profit from having had her and that that the transfer would take place within several days.

Popular: Animal activists had wanted Morgan to be returned to her native waters off the coast of Norway

Conservationists had already laid the groundwork to prepare Morgan for release in Stoe, Norway

Morgan was found starving and weak in shallow North Sea water off the Dutch coast in June 2010. She was estimated to be about two years old and weighed just 880lbs. By July of this year she was in good health and had more than doubled her weight.

International treaties prohibit the trade of killer 'whales' - which are actually classified as ocean-going dolphins - without difficult-to-obtain exemption permits.

Fewer than 50 orcas are held in captivity worldwide and the bulk of them are owned by SeaWorld, a subsidiary of U.S. private equity giant BlackRock.

Orcas are the largest species within the dolphin family and one of the world's most powerful predators, hunting in pods to feast on animals such as seals, sea lions and even whales. The killer whales' distinctive traits include sophisticated problem-solving and communicative abilities, and their formation of complex communities.

A female capable of breeding and introducing new genes into the pool of captive orcas is worth millions of pounds, Visser said. Female orcas may live as long as 80 years, giving birth five or more times once they reach maturity.

French environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, in reaction to the ruling, said: 'It is unfortunate that we continue to be manipulated by the power of economics over clear science and what is best for the welfare of this one individual killer whale.'

The Harderwijk Dolphinarium is owned by France's Compagnie des Alpes. Loro Parque, owned by a German businessman, received its four orcas on loan from SeaWorld.

The Harderwijk Dolphinarium, which put Morgan on display after her rescue, has not disclosed financial details of her shipment to Loro Parque.

Morgan, pictured here with British biologist Steve Hearn, was found starving and weak in shallow North Sea water off the Dutch coast in June 2010

Fewer than 50 orcas are held in captivity worldwide and the bulk of them are owned by SeaWorld in the U.S.

Previous attempts to reintroduce orcas into the wild have a mixed record at best. The most famous case is that of Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the 1993 film Free Willy.

Keiko was caught at age two near Iceland and spent many years in Mexico City. After 20 years in various marine parks, he was flown back to Iceland and released under lengthy supervision. He died in 2003 at age 26, apparently of pneumonia, after surviving two months on his own and swimming about 870 miles to Norway.

The most successful release was that of a young orca called Springer, which had a story somewhat similar to that of Morgan. Springer was found off the coast of Washington state in early 2002 and successfully reintroduced to her pod in British Columbia, Canada, later the same year.

Experts agree that the less time the animals are exposed to humans and the quicker they are reunited with family or relatives - identified by their vocalisations - the better their chances of survival.

Visser said Morgan's chances are waning, but possibly still as much as '80 per cent' with the proper care. She said in any case it was worth the risk to spare Morgan what Visser said would be a miserable life in captivity, forced to perform in daily public shows.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is currently pursuing a long-shot court case in the U.S. that equates orcas with people and says their working conditions violate the 13th Amendment ban on slavery. SeaWorld said the suit is baseless.

Visser said Morgan's best hopes for release now lie with Spanish courts or the Norwegian government petitioning Spain for her release.



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