On April 26, 2016, the Dolphin Project released nauseating footage of an orca in a marine park ramming a gate. Captured by an anonymous activist from inside Loro Parque, a theme park located in Tenerife, Spain, the park’s response to the footage was swift. It condemned Dolphin Project for what it described as “a new attempt at manipulation through exaggeration and dramatization of a completely normal situation.”
We strongly disagree that there is anything “normal” about this footage. However, we do acknowledge that it may be considered “normal” for the captive industry, thus confirming that there is something intrinsically wrong with captivity in the first place.
The orcas observed in this footage — as confirmed by Loro Parque, are named Morgan and Tekoa. They are two of six orcas cared for by the Tenerife park but solely owned by SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. It is an arrangement that has created a unique challenge for Loro Parque in that it took these orcas on a breeding loan, yet must now abide by SeaWorld’s recent implementation of its killer whale breeding ban.
In a press release on March 18, the Spanish park acknowledged that “since the orcas are not the property of Loro Parque, we have to respect the decision made by SeaWorld.” But they were not overjoyed about it. “We understand that permanent prevention of the reproduction of wild animals under human care is an action that goes against the very cycle of life and well-being of the animals,” Loro Parque added.
The park cemented its dissent in an April 27, blog post:
It is surprising that advocates of ending the breeding of orcas in human care should be offended by these images, precisely because sexual frustration at not being able to access the pool where there are orcas of the opposite sex with which to mate can trigger this type of behaviour.
If you have not seen the video of Morgan ramming — or as Loro Parque refers to it, “pushing the gate strongly” with her head, then please do watch it. The park appears to insinuate that Morgan’s frustration is your fault.
As for what is wrong with Morgan, we must rely on the park to be truthful about why Morgan is so agitated and angry. Just as we only have the park’s word that their veterinarians have not found “any stress and cruelty allegation(s)” to be true. Actual evidence of this statement is not provided, but we’ll get to that later. The truth — in most cases, can be sought in what the park doesn’t say.
We are currently aware for example, that Loro Parque’s orca habitats are undergoing construction/renovation and that one pool is not in use at all. In this photograph posted by ‘Orca Ocean Blog Loro Parque’, the barricades are easily observed.
Stress and associated health problems due to such environmental changes are a well-acknowledged concern in captive cetaceans (Caldwell & Caldwell, 1968; Dierauf, 1990; Sweeney, 1990), but one cannot discount Loro Parque’s history when evaluating further problems.
The park received its first four orcas from SeaWorld in February 2006. They were named Keto, Tekoa, Kohana and Skyla. Together, these whales created a volatile and challenging environment for a newly-established park with inexperienced trainers.
One of the first incidences that we’re aware of occurred on October 6, 2007 when apprentice trainer Claudia Vollhardt was working with Tekoa. Something went awry and he turned on his trainer. The ‘Sydney Morning Herald‘ reported that the male orca:
Dragged her underwater repeatedly until it finally freed the woman with a badly bruised chest and a broken arm. Tekoa slammed the woman in the chest from underneath and ended up pulling her right arm, park officials said.
Loro Parque spokeswoman Patricia Delponti described the incident as “an accident, not an attack”, even though waterwork was suspended for six months afterward.
Two years later, Skyla was involved in an incident with Orca Ocean assistant supervisor Rafael Sanchez. Numerous reports state that she pushed the supervisor around in the pool and up against the walls with her rostrum during a show. As a result, both Skyla and Tekoa were now excluded from waterwork.
Further testimony came from former Loro Parque employee Suzanne Allee. It is available to read in its entirety at FreeMorgan.org, but it essentially airs concerns about safety issues within the park and describes incidences that were detrimental to both humans and orcas alike:
“The Trials of Tekoa“, written by Tim Zimmermann, delves into Tekoa’s life at the marine park more deeply, and photographs reveal the extent of the rakings the orca has received during his time there.
Allee then references a day at Loro Parque when the orcas completely shut down the show because they were too “obsessed” with “tearing the [pool] coating off the walls.” This coating, a new product called ‘MetFlex’, Allee said, “had never been used before in orca pools” and was applied against the supplier’s advice when the “cement was still damp from a recent rain.”
Additionally, according to former SeaWorld trainer Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, Keto’s paint-peeling ventures earned the orca an endoscope. The preparation for which, can be seen in the video below:
Tragically, the trainer on the far right of this video is Alexis Martinez. Martinez would be brutally killed by Keto on Dec. 24, 2009. Loro Parque’s internal incident report indicated that the orca’s initial attack was so swift and devastating that just 40 seconds into the incident — Alexis appeared “motionless on Keto’s rostrum.”
With 50% of its resident orcas (that we know of) displaying aggressive tendencies, all waterwork was suspended. Kohana was already pregnant with Keto’s calf and in 2010, she gave birth to a male named Adan, and then immediately rejected him.
In this same year, a solitary, young, female orca named Morgan, was discovered swimming off the coast of the Netherlands. Emaciated, she was captured by Dolfinarium Harderwijk with the intent of rehabilitation and release.
Morgan’s release never materialized. Amid much controversy and many legal challenges by the Free Morgan Foundation, 18 months later she was moved to Loro Parque to become the facility’s sixth orca, officially joining SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s corporate collection in Nov. 2011. Legal attempts to free her, are still ongoing today.
Just two years after Adan’s birth, on August 3, 2012, Kohana delivered another calf, this time, a female. Sired by Keto and named Vicky, once again, Kohana immediately rejected her. Vicky died unexpectedly on June 16, 2013, at just 10 months of age.
Vicky’s death constituted a closer examination of Loro Parque’s breeding program. Highly convoluted, it took some navigation to learn that Kohana’s dam is Takara, the half-sister of Keto; and Keto’s sire is Kotar, who is also Kohana’s grandfather. In short, following family lines, Kohana was bred to her own uncle twice. Yet, in defense of Morgan’s head-banging incident, the park says we should celebrate its work in saving two parrot species from being critically endangered.
We do sincerely celebrate that work, and kudos to them for their achievements, but to equate these efforts to orca and dolphin conservation is about as nonsensical as describing Morgan’s actions being similar to how a “dog scratches a door when it wants to enter another room.”
Rather than making an effort to explain why we should view an orca slamming its head into a gate as a “natural” event, Loro Parque challenges the work of the Dolphin Project. Our work is clearly covered on our website and everybody is welcome to read it.
Swift condemnation of Loro Parque’s ‘natural’ explanation came from former orca trainer John Hargrove, the author of the New York Times bestseller ‘Beneath the Surface’. He told Sam Lipman that in the past, orcas have died from ramming their heads into other orcas and inanimate objects:
You must realize that the force at which Morgan is slamming her head into the steel bars is comparable to if she were slamming her head with unbelievable force into concrete … Not hard to understand how serious and dangerous this behavior is – and it is related to captivity. — John Hargrove/Sam Lipman. Ocean Advocate News.
It has to be related to captivity as there are certainly no gates in the ocean. Still, Morgan is not stressed writes Loro Parque, something its veterinarian team can attest to. It’s easy to say that your animals are faring well when you possess the only evidence currently available. This is evidence we do not have, the public does not have, and nobody can gain access to it.
We are aware that marine parks frequently test their animals for elevated stress levels by monitoring glucocorticoids such as cortisol. Both human and marine mammals release glucocorticoids to help the body cope with stress and environmental changes. Fortunately, glucocorticoid levels can be measured to check changes in stress levels and offer a definitive answer.
How open is Loro Parque to taking these test samples to a mutually agreed-upon independent lab for analysis so we can all know the truth?
Featured Image: Orcas performing at Loro Parque. Image: Piotrus. CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.