By Josephine Yurcaba
Nanuq, a White Arctic Beluga whale, died in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando after ongoing treatment for a jaw injury. The injury was sustained during what SeaWorld called an “interaction” between two animals “that were part of a compatible social group,” according to Headline & Global News.
The official cause of death is unknown, and the results of a medical exam won’t be released for another six to eight weeks. In the meantime, SeaWorld will be left to defend yet another (likely avoidable) death in its parks, which have been losing visitors and stock value since the release of “Blackfish” in 2013.
Nanuq, who was an estimated 31 or 32 years old according to the Orlando Sentinel, lived with three other captive Beluga whales and was “on a long-term breeding loan” from the Vancouver Aquarium. According to Animal Welfare Institute marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose, in the wild, a broken jaw resulting from contact with another animal seems unlikely.
“If he died because of something related to that infection he got related to the broken jaw, then he died of being in captivity,” Rose told the Orlando Sentinel. Cetaceans are highly emotional and social animals and can have antagonist relationships with one another just like humans can. In the wild, individuals who do not along can easily avoid one another, but when they are forced into captivity with one another, this is not possible. Could you imagine being forced to live in a bathtub with someone you didn’t like? Yeah, pretty brutal.
PETA also released a statement faulting SeaWorld for not treating Nanuq’s jaw adequately.
“One thing seems pretty clear, though: SeaWorld allowed Nanuq’s infection to become so severe that it was fatal,” PETA told The Inquisitor. “PETA is submitting a complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture inquiring about unsafe handling practices and possible incompatible confinement and inadequate veterinary care at SeaWorld.”
SeaWorld doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to premature deaths and cetaceans. It is estimated that dolphins kept at SeaWorld rarely live past the age of 10 years old; in the wild they can live to be 40 or 50. The Sun-Sentinel found that over 30 years, about 4,000 sea lions, dolphins and whales have died in captivity. In the 2,400 cases where a cause of death was listed, one-fifth died of “uniquely human hazards” or avoidable causes.
After backlash from the public and animal welfare organizations, SeaWorld announced it would double the size of its orca enclosures at three SeaWorld parks in an effort to “improve” the lives of the animals in their care. The project is scheduled to be completed in San Diego in 2018, and then in Orlando and San Antonio shortly after.
But will improving the size of a tank, or investing in more “rescue” programs really solve SeaWorld’s problem? It won’t, according to a recent investigation by the Humane Society of the United States and the World Society for the Protection of Animals:
“Viewing captive animals gives the public a false picture of the animals’ natural lives,” the report said. “Worse yet, it desensitizes people to captivity’s inherent cruelties — for virtually all captive marine mammals, the world is a tiny enclosure, and life is devoid of naturalness.”
If Nanuq’s death shows us anything, it is that this lack of “naturalness” can be fatal to the animals who are trapped in captivity. It is time we stop trying to make captive environments better and empty the tanks once and for all.