Monday, October 22, 2012

Orca Goes To Court: Free Morgan campaign to release captive marine mammal

At the recent BLUE Ocean Film Festival, I had the opportunity to learn about Morgan, a female orca that was found alone and in poor health in the waters off the Netherlands.  She was taken by a government-sanctioned rehabilitation agency with the idea that Morgan would be brought back to health and released back to her family pod.  In a very complicated series of events that are now being sorted out in the courts, Morgan was instead turned over to Loro Parque, a Spanish aquatic amusement park in the Canary Islands.

As advocates for Morgan's release, she has many supporters (In the interest of full disclosure, I have previously stated in this blog (here, here, and here) that I am opposed to keeping cetecea like orcas and dolphins in captivity.  I believe the time has to recognize that we have learned enough since the first orca or dolphin was placed in captivity to know that it is not in the best interests of the animals to continue the practice - we now know better).

I had the chance to learn about Morgan's situation firsthand from people like Jean-Michel Cousteau and, in particular, Ingrid Visser, PhD. - a whale researcher who is probably one of Morgan's most committed supporters.  I spoke with Ingrid about Morgan's plight at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and we agreed to follow up after the festival with an interview.

RTSea: You are deeply involved in the plight of Morgan, a young female orca, currently being held in an amusement park in Spain, but before we look into Morgan's situation, can you tell us a bit about your background?  What initially fueled your interest in studying cetacea (whales and dolphins)?

Ingrid Visser: I’ve been interested in cetaceans for as long as I can remember – I must have been 5 or 6 years old when I first remember knowing that I wanted to work with them.  However, as I kid I was told that the only way I could do that was to work with them at SeaWorld, but even at that age I knew how wrong those types of places were for the animals and I strove to find another way.  I’ve now been working with wild orca for over 20 years.

RTS:  How would you best describe the role of whales and dolphins in the marine ecosystem?  The ramifications from the loss of some marine species has been documented and for other threatened species the adverse impacts have theorized.  What do you see as the impact to the overall marine ecosystem with the possible loss of some cetacea species?  What is the possible cascade effect?

IV: If we use orca (killer whales) as an example of the cascade effect of their removal, the implications are almost so wide-ranging as to defy imagination.  Orca are what we term an ‘apex predator’ (sitting right at the top of the food web) so their removal would have ramifications for their prey but also for the whole food chain.   Orca are also known as a ‘keystone’ species (which is a term that comes from arched doorways made of bricks, where the stone at the top of the arch keeps the whole thing together and if you remove it, the whole arch will collapse).  With this type terminology and it’s definition, I would hope that no further explanation is necessary!

However, orca can also be described by another term, and that is an ‘umbrella species’.  In this definition, the idea is that if you protect them and their habitat, by default that acts as an umbrella, protecting everything that naturally falls under their reach – in this case, pretty much the whole ocean!  Returning young female orca to the wild has been successfully completed (with ‘Springer’  [a rehabilitated orca] now being reunited with her family for over 10 years).  There are details about her and her remarkable parallels to Morgan, on our website.

RTS: Morgan was originally found in the cold waters off the northwest coast of the Netherlands.  She was found emaciated and dehydrated.  What reasons do whale researchers give for her condition at the time of her capture?

IV: We don’t know what happened to Morgan, we don’t know why she was alone or why she was emaciated and dehydrated.  The reasons could range from the logical to the bizarre and just about anything in between.  We don’t like to speculate about this sort of thing, as that can taint how we look at the next steps (rehabilitation and release).  However, as I know that people are often asking this very question, I’d say this – how is that any young animal (or for that matter, human) gets lost and separated from their family?  It could be a simple thing such as the parent (or offspring) getting distracted and wandering off (think of the number of kids who get lost at supermarkets or shopping malls!), or it could be something much more sinister, where the parent was injured in some way (perhaps run over by a boat) and the youngster (Morgan in this case), fled in fright.  Of course, we also can’t rule out that it was something more natural – such as her mother dying of old age.

But, regardless of the original cause of Morgan being alone, she needed help.  This was given, but unfortunately from that point on, she became a valuable commodity in the captivity industry and they don’t want to let her go.  People have called into question why humans had intervened at all and some have said that she should have been left to die.  There are arguments both for and against this method of response (or lack of).  They are a little too intense to go into here, but I would say this; that as a species we have done so much to harm the ocean and it’s creatures, that if we can do something to help right that balance, then I think that we should do that.  As it turns out, Morgan is from the Norwegian population of orca, which was hunted extensively (over 2000 taken).  Studies have shown that the most vulnerable demographic to remove from such a population of orca, is young females.  Conversely, if you want to help such a population recover, logically, returning young females makes the most sense.

RTS: Morgan was brought back to health under a rehabilitation program that would have culminated in her release back to her original family pod.  However, at the 11th hour, a Netherlands court judge ruled that Morgan should be turned over to Loro Parque, a Spanish aquatic theme park in the Canary Islands.  On what grounds did the judge override the opinions of whale rehabilitation experts who were anticipating  that Morgan would be released back into open water?

IV: There were in fact two judges, in two separate hearings (and there will be three judges in the next hearing).  Confused yet?  It is actually a very complicated process and to try and simmer it down to a few key points it should be kept in mind that the Court case is still the same one (there have just been three hearings for the same case).  Also, it should be remembered that the case is against the Netherlands Government for allowing the Dolfinarium Harderwijk, to police their own work.  In other words, they were issued with a ‘rehabilitation and release’ permit, but that permit has a clause that says ‘unless the animals is deemed to not be suitable for release’.  And therein lies the rub.  There is no external vetting process to decide which animals is ready to go back or not.  The Dolfinarium Harderwijk was extremely duplicitous in their methods.

For instance, they told the public (and we have evidence of this) that Morgan was ‘only a toddler, and still dependent on milk’, yet, they never gave her any milk and only ever fed her dead fish.  They also told the public that Morgan was only 2 years old. Yet, when we compared her length to that of 29 other orca (for whom we knew their age at a similar size), we found that she was at least 3 years old, and possibly even up to the age of 5.   This has implications in terms of weaning (most orca are fully weaned by the time they are 3 years old, but some even earlier).  Also, this has implications in terms of her foraging skills and her language skills.  Regardless, the entertainment park lied and also provided this distorted information to their ‘seven experts’, causing them to form opinions based on misleading information.  These ‘Seven Experts’ were four whale biologists, two seabird ecologists and an ex SeaWorld Veterinarian.   When the four whale experts were given the full data set (which included other info), each of them withdrew their support to keep Morgan in captivity and said that she should at the very least be moved to a sea pen and she should be given the chance to go back to her family.

RTS: Was it a question of the judge questioning Morgan's fitness and odds of success or was the judge influenced by the theme park organization, who would obviously benefit financially by acquiring Morgan?

IV: The financial benefits of Morgan, to the captivity industry are difficult define, because the industry keeps their cards very close to their chest when it comes to things like this.  However, we do know that one female orca had been insured for US$10 million.  That implied that Morgan is worth at least that much to them.  But, if we take into account that Morgan is the first orca to come into the captivity industry, from the wild, in 25 years, her dollar value escalates considerably.  Add to that the fact that of the 44 orca in captivity at the time of her capture, all but 2 were related to each other (and of those two, one had given birth to six calves, all of whom had died and the other was a male who they had not managed to collect semen from, so they had been unable to bred him as he was held in a tank, alone, in Argentina).  To make things even more interesting, the public should know that SeaWorld has allowed mothers to breed with sons – indicating that inbreeding is fairly rampant in this industry.  Morgan’s new blood line represents the life-line for this industry, where the average age for a captive orca less than nine years (compared to wild orca, where the average age is more than 40 years and individuals are known to live beyond 80 years).

RTS: Another court hearing is scheduled for November 1st in the Netherlands to review the judge's ruling on Morgan.  What strategy are you and your colleagues taking to argue for Morgan's release, and what do you think the counter-arguments are going to be in favor of maintaining Morgan's captivity?

IV: Morgan’s court case is an on-going case.  The strategy remains the same as the last two hearings, in that we believe that legally the Netherlands Government has violated various laws, treaties and conventions and we call them to task on those aspects.  Additionally, we will be presenting documentation that shows that Morgan is suffering immensely at Loro Parque, where she has been transported.  At that entertainment park, she is made to perform in shows (which is a violation of her EU CITES Transport permit), she is subjected to intense sexual pressure from an adult male (because as explained above, the industry desperately wants to breed from her, but additionally, if she is pregnant it will present a number of problems with regards to releasing her as her calf would be a hybrid and furthermore she would be an unnaturally young mother – orca in the wild don’t normally give birth until they are around 12-14 years of age – and Morgan is roughly half that age.  Loro Parque has bred one of their other female at the tender age of 7, the youngest any orca has been forced to breed).  We will also be presenting evidence that shows that the park do not know how to deal with a wild-born orca and that they are negligent in their care of Morgan.

Loro Parque is now claiming (after Morgan had been given a ‘clean bill of health’) that she is ‘deaf’.  Their claims are based purely on some behavioural responses that she gives (or rather doesn’t give).  They state that she doesn’t respond to their whistles.  I have personally watched her not respond to some of the whistles, but respond to others.  Furthermore, she also chooses which hand-signals to respond to as well.  By their logic this would mean that Morgan was also blind!  Regardless, Loro Parque has had more than 11 months to text Morgan’s hearing, yet they haven’t.  This begs the question, why not?  And my suspicion is that they don’t want to find out that she isn’t deaf.  The seed of doubt is enough to cloud the arguments and that is all they require.

RTS: The Free Morgan Foundation's website ( has amassed a considerable amount of detailed information regarding Morgan's history, the legal positions and motions filed, and even information about Morgan's family pod.  Of course the foundation would welcome any financial support from concerned individuals and organizations, but what else can concerned people do to help?

IV: We have a ‘How to Help’ page, with some suggestions.  We certainly want the world to sit up and notice Morgan.  She isn’t the first orca (or dolphin) to be taken into captivity for ‘rehabilitation and release’ and then ended up in a life of performing circus tricks in a featureless box.  She won’t be the last and sadly, for these animals, the only retirement they get is when they die.  We need the public to realize just how bad the industry is and that they have been misleading the public for years.  The truth has to come out. 

We have ‘pledges’ that people can take (such as to never by a ticket to a park which holds whales or dolphins), we have a petition, which at the time of writing is at around 35,000 signatures, for Morgan’s release (which we will show the Judges and tell them ‘be careful what you do, as the world is watching’).  We have a facebook page ( and we are trying to spread the word through the social media.  We have a twitter account @free_morgan so you can get info about her as we get news.  If any of your readers know of any celebrities who would be willing to stand up and say something for Morgan, on their own twitter account or their own facebook page, they would help spread the world exponentially.


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