Suddenly Dying: How Does Our Response to Marine Mammal Deaths Leave Us Less Human?

Orca Skyla at Loro Parque. Photo published in La Vanguardia.

Two weeks ago, an orca named Skyla died at Loro Parque in Canary Islands, Spain. The cause of death was found to be an intestinal torsion, which caused an acute sepsis (infection of the bloodstream) and sudden death. I can’t comment on Skyla’s case, because I wasn’t involved. What I can tell you, after a decade of caring for the health of marine mammals in a variety of settings, is that the public response to this case rings similar to many cases before and echoes the response I see in other fields and specialties.

I read statements from organizations, comments on social media, and conversations among peers. I read a veterinarian speculating on events leading up to the case, and the resulting calls of cruelty towards this animal.

I’ve witnessed both marine mammals and other species die rapidly when the gut twists. It is something that requires emergency surgery, and often we arrive too late, if surgery is even an option. Yet the differences I’ve observed in how people speak publicly about marine mammal deaths is puzzling: I watched two colleagues try to save a wild Hawaiian monk seal that ultimately died of a torsion. Their efforts were lauded as heroic, and we accepted that they had done everything they could possibly have done to try to save a life. Why is it in the case of Skyla, the efforts of the veterinary and care team were criticized, and the sudden death was categorized and written off as an effect of living a life in captivity?

Similar ire is repeatedly thrown at veterinarians in all fields, with frequent news articles portraying a grieving owner and the loss of a pet where fault is immediately assumed. Cyberbullying, physical threats, and the mental toll associated with it contributes to suicide rates in the veterinary field (and health professions in general) more than three times higher than the general population, and online support groups such as Not One More Vet (NOMV) number more than 26,000 members strong.

I acutely remember the feelings I felt as a veterinarian caring for an animal that dies suddenly. Feelings of grief, questioning my actions and capabilities, and the heaviness of criticism and anger from those grieving as well.

Working continually with marine mammal species, I am aware of the passions that these animals evoke. My intent isn’t to shift any mindsets on whether marine mammal species should be kept under human care. The truth is, even looking at the photo at the top of this post was likely polarizing for you. That passion exists because people care deeply. And we need that passion. We need the passion of advocates who see an opportunity to improve the lives of animals. And equally, we need the passion of the caretakers who dedicate their careers to caring for these species, and who are doing everything within their human capacity to commit to their health and wellbeing.

And we can always use the reminder that we are, in fact, human. If we ever begin to think that we’ve learned all we need to learn, or that we aren’t in need of innovation, we should leave the field, because it simply can’t be true. There is always space to improve the health and welfare of the animals we care for, and I dedicate my work to that continual quest.

To those of you who care about and care for animals — in whatever capacity — if you have lost one, I see you, and I join you in this experience. The loss of a magnificent animal, no matter how large or small, is something that all of us grieve. And as we work towards a healthier world for all living beings, including ourselves, I commit to the continual process of rehumanizing so that we can realize how connected we are. I ask for you to commit to it as well. Practice seeing someone you disagree with as a human, and ultimately, see yourself as an animal in need of care as well.

Marine mammal veterinarian, conservationist. Founder of Sea Change Health. #TEDFellow. #Zoognosis. www.clairesimeone.com

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