Saturday, July 7, 2007

Health and Safety Risks at Marine Parks

While marine parks and aquariums are reluctant to release incidents of human injuries caused by their animals, it is difficult to suppress when several hundred spectators are watching.

Accounts of whales and dolphins injuring, attacking and even killing members of the public also surface periodically in local newspapers, or are caught on film by park visitors and released to television stations.

Over the years, Sea World trainers in the United States have sustained numerous injuries while performing with the orcas, including bites during feedings, ruptured kidneys, lacerated livers, fractured bones, and near drowning. In a 2004 report to the United States Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), the University of California found that captive animals had injured more than half (52%) of marine mammal workers.

Numerous injuries have also taken place at Marineland. In 1986, an orca dragged a trainer around the pool by his leg after he fell into the water during a stunt. An 11-year-old girl required four stitches to close a wound on her thumb after a beluga bit her during a petting session in 2000. In 2002, an orca fell out of its tank during a staff Christmas party. Luckily, no one was underneath the whale when it came crashing down, but the potential for injury was there.

In a joint Canadian Federation of Humane Societies/Zoocheck Canada report written in February 1999, concerns about human safety at Marineland were highlighted and submitted to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The following observations were documented:

· Children leaning over the plexi-glas barrier in order to pet the orcas at Friendship Cove,
· Adults holding their infants entirely over the pool (with the dorsal fin of one of the orcas hitting one of the child as the whale swims away),
· Visitors touching the blow holes of the whales,
· Young children sitting on the concrete wall at the deep end of the pool.

According to the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) Standards of Animal Care and Housing, “security must be provided to safeguard the animal collection and the general public,” while the public “should be prevented from directly contacting potentially dangerous animals by use of double fencing or other barriers.”

Unfortunately, the standards set by CAZA for its members (which includes Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium) are only voluntary. Because marine parks and aquariums encourage its visitors to feed and touch its cetaceans, accidents and injuries will continue to occur.

The Tragic Death of Keltie Byrne

The drowning of Keltie Byrne is perhaps an example of the worst that can happen. In 1991, the 20-year-old University of Victoria marine biology student and part-time trainer slipped and fell into the orca pool at Sealand of the Pacific. One of the whales took her into its mouth and dragged her around the pool, most of the time holding her underwater.

The champion swimmer broke free and tried to escape, but the three orcas prevented her from exiting the pool. At one point Byrne tried to climb out but the whales pulled her back in. The girl was screaming as other staff members tried to distract the orcas but nothing would work.

Keltie Byrne drowned as she was held underwater, caught inside the mouth of one of orcas as it swam around the pool. It took several hours for her body to be recovered. Sealand closed in 1992.

Communicable Diseases

People who come in contact with whales and dolphins are at a high risk of contracting infectious diseases. According to the MMC report, 18% of respondents reported respiratory illnesses, including diseases such as tuberculosis, while working with marine mammals. Workers exposed to marine mammals for more than 50 days a year were three times more likely to contract a respiratory infection.

It is often difficult to diagnose and treat infectious diseases contracted from whales and dolphins; physicians may be unaware of the signs and risks, and the diseases may go unnoticed. Regular and prolonged contact with cetaceans increases a person’s chances of contracting a disease.

Curiously the West Edmonton Mall prohibited contact between the public and the dolphins, not only because the animals become stressed when forced to interact with strangers, but because the risk of disease transmission between species was too great.

As long as the public is allowed to touch wild and exotic animals, they and the animals will be exposed to unnecessary risk.

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