Freedom. But at what cost?

I am sure by now that you have all seen the videos taken earlier on in the year of the Russian ‘whale jail’. If you have been living under a rock for the last six months and need some time to go do a Google search, fetch yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit (preferably a custard cream) while you’re at it, this is about to get heavy.

Now, I am sure we are all 100% in agreement that none of these animals should ever have been captured from the wild in the first place. However, the harsh reality is that, while animal rights activists waste their time and money trying to shut down accredited zoos and aquariums which provide stellar care for their animals, wild captures in Eastern Europe and Asia have continued to slide under the radar.

When the first images began to appear earlier on in the year, of several orcas and over eighty beluga whales, confined to cramped pools and freezing conditions, there was public outcry. Everyone was united in the belief that these animals needed to be released back into their natural habitat. Something that myself and my fellow trainers agreed upon. However, the situation was more complex than the majority of people realised. We hoped that those charged with the care, rehabilitation and eventual release of these whales would think of the same necessary interventions and potential challenges.

It seems that we were wrong.

After an almost week-long transport, two killer whales and six beluga whales were moved via truck over 1800km to the release site. A journey of this length would have been incredibly stressful for the animals. So stressful in fact, that I would be surprised if all of the individuals made it to the release site alive. Especially if they were given no desensitisation whatsoever in advance of the transport date. Not only that, the tanks used for whale transport often do not allow large bodily movements, in order to prevent the animals from hurting themselves. Cetaceans cannot be anaesthetised for transports or operations because of their respiratory anatomy. They are conscious breathers, meaning that they must think about every single breath that they take, Therefore, if they were put to sleep for any period of time, they would quickly suffocate and die.

Regardless, an entire week is far too long a period of time to confine an animal to a transport tank! As much as activists love to compare pools at marine parks to ‘bathtubs’, which is a gross exaggeration, it would be a fitting word to use in order to describe the holding tanks used for transport.

Watching the seemingly rushed and reckless manner in which the whales were eventually placed into the ocean, it truly seems like they thought the solution was as simple as picking up the whales and dumping them back in the sea. After their long and arduous week-long journey, where the whales would surely have been suffering the negative effects of stress, as well as lack of movement for days, they were simply hoisted up into stretchers and placed into the ocean. Images of bloody mats, twitching animals, and people handling the animals inappropriately are incredibly difficult to look at.

Absolutely no effort was made to rehabilitate these animals or allow them a period of rest and recuperation after their travels. Not even a few days observation by animal behaviourists or veterinarians, to assess if they were adjusting in any way to their new surroundings. In the video that was released of the two killer whales swimming frantically around each other after being sent off into the waves alone, their swimming patterns are a cause for alarm. One whale even appears to have difficulty swimming normally, potentially as a result of its confinement during transport. These whales are expected to simply swim off into the sunset, completely aware of how to hunt for themselves again, even after being fed by man for the best part of a year.

It may have worked for Free Willy in the 1993 movie, but that was Hollywood people, this is real life. The release of Keiko himself (the whale who starred as Free Willy) failed, even though his release was meticulously planned out and carefully analysed for years!

As an animal care professional (but by no means expert) who is charged with the care of four killer whales daily, these images and videos make my blood burn. I can only imagine how scared and hurt these whales are. It was bad enough that they had to go through the stress of capture last year, but to put them though the same kind of cruelty while releasing them and call it a ‘kindness’? Disgusting. There was nothing kind about that process.

The majority of the process has been done in secret, without the knowledge or input from international experts in order to facilitate a sophisticated, successful release. Therefore, it pains me to realise that this might mean that not all of the whales survived the transport, and that we may never find out if any of them survive the release. This was only the first transport undertaken for eight individual animals. There are still just under eighty individuals awaiting the same fate residing back in the ‘whale jail’.

You might ask me, ‘how can you advocate for the release of captive cetaceans when you are so against the release of the whales you work with?’. The answer is simple. The whales I work with every single day receive the highest standard of care they could possibly have. Aside from that, all of them were born in the care of man and releasing them into the ocean would have a whole host of other serious complications. In the end, we would not be able to offer them a life better than what they already have.

But that is still a possibility for the whales in Russia. If they are released properly. I truly hope that people will speak up and do what they can to stop the rest of these whales being released in a similar manner. Whatever effort you can make – signing petitions, raising funds, flying to Russia… make your voice heard! It is time for the loudest activists to show that they can put their money where their mouth is (I’m looking at you Leonardo Di Caprio). These whales deserve the best chance at survival that we can give them, because we owe it to them.

-Hazel

Interested in more of my views on rehab/release and sea ‘sanctuaries’? Check out my book ‘I Still Believe’, available on Amazon.

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