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article imageFormer trainers decry possible orca pregnancy at SeaWorld Special

By Elizabeth Batt     Apr 22, 2014 in Environment
San Diego - A newly-released YouTube video caused a stir over the weekend after it showed SeaWorld staff performing an ultrasound on an allegedly pregnant young female orca in San Diego.
The video, captured by CetusCetus, was posted to YouTube on April 20th. Entitled, "Kalia's Pregnancy: Ultrasound Footage," it was uploaded with the following description:
For those who don't know: Kalia is pregnant and due probably in December of this year. The father is thought (edit: not confirmed!) to be Ulises by artificial insemination.
News of the potential pregnancy rapidly spread across social media, given that it was only two weeks ago that SeaWorld had argued against a proposed new bill called The Orca Welfare and Safety Act or AB-2140.
The bill, proposed by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and sponsored by the Animal Welfare Institute, would prevent the use of killer whales in entertainment shows and ban the import, export and breeding of orcas in California.
In attendance at the hearing was SeaWorld San Diego president John Reilly. Reilly said that his company, "feels really strongly that this is an extreme legislation that is based on propaganda."
John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer, attended the hearings and testified in favor of AB-2140. One of the points highlighted by Hargrove, was the marine park's breeding program.
After hearing testimony from both sides of the issue, the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee of the California Assembly elected to send the bill to an interim study, delaying a possible decision until 2015.
Hargrove meanwhile, who featured heavily in the documentary Blackfish, has worked at both SeaWorld California and the company's San Antonio-based park. The former killer whale trainer told DJ that the news of Kalia's potential pregnancy was not at all surprising.
"This is the only way they can sustain their business model," Hargrove explained. "These animals are not breeding fast enough naturally," he added.
SeaWorld would neither confirm nor deny Kalia's pregnancy. In an e-mail sent to DJ yesterday morning, the park wrote:
Many of the animals in our collection, including our killer whales, are part of our breeding program. Information about specific pregnancies and births is announced as appropriate.
For Hargrove, an outspoken critic of the park's breeding program, SeaWorld he says, places too much emphasis on getting more whales. The former trainer, who has personally conducted artificial insemination procedures on orcas, said that SeaWorld sent trainers down to Argentina specifically to train male orca Kshamenk on the AI procedure:
"It's Kshamenk's semen that I used on Takara in July 2011 to get her pregnant," he said. "She lost that calf in March (2012), and all they did was wait for three months and then they re-artificially inseminated her again," he added.
By pushing breeding, SeaWorld, the former animal trainer suggested, reached a new low. Hargrove explained:
When Dawn died, and her death was still fresh, I remember vividly Brad Andrews, Chuck Thompson and two others saying to us, "our number one priority" — remember, she had just been killed — "our number one priority, is artificial insemination." To get the viable females pregnant through AI as fast as we can, and as soon as they have the calf, AI them as fast as we can again.
[Dawn Brancheau was killed by the killer whale Tilikum in Feb. 2010].
Back to Kalia, to move or not move?
Hargrove said that SeaWorld had planned to move Kalia from California to Texas last summer. "Her food board was made up in Texas," he said. "It was totally done, which means they were very, very far along in moving her," Hargrove added.
The move never happened, but "if it's true that Kalia is pregnant, and she was artificially inseminated, and is due in December," Hargrove said, "that means two things: She was AI'd at the age of eight years, and they were planning on moving her while she was pregnant, which of course is harmful to the mother and to the calf."
But odd timings on transports wouldn't be anything new for SeaWorld the former trainer told DJ. "We already did that when we transported Takara," he said. "She was moved from Florida to Texas, taken away from her three-year-old calf Trua, and she was either six-seven months pregnant." Hargrove said he knew this because, "I personally picked her up at the airport, 4:30 AM out of the C-130 aircraft because we were hiding it from the public."
By many scientific standards, at just nine years of age, Kalia could be considered too young for breeding. Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, also a former SeaWorld trainer and Blackfish cast member, told DJ that if Kalia is pregnant, the artificial insemination of Kalia, at 8 years old, is unethical and outrageous." He explained:
According to a study on the Northern Residents, by Olesiuk, Ellis and Ford. 2005, top of page 16, "Mean age at first birth was estimated to be 14.1 years during the initial period of unrestrained growth, and increased slightly to 15.4 years during the later period of stability."
In short, the age at first birth for this wild population is typically between 14 and 15 years. There were three instances of non-viable calves produced by slightly younger mothers, but the scientists defined these females (in the paper) as sexually "immature." They state:
"We are aware of three instances (A24, A43 and A52) in which females gave birth to non-viable calves that did not survive to the next July-August survey period, prior to giving birth to a viable calf. By our definition, these females were still classified as immature."
Hargrove says that one of his biggest concerns is that SeaWorld is not allowing the whales time to either mature or heal. "I've learned through experts such as Dr. Rose and Dr. Giles, that healthy and natural intervals are every 4-5 years," he said. "A female orca won't cycle again for another year and a half after she gives birth to a calf because of nursing," he added.
Hargrove points to what they did with Takara as an example:
After giving birth to Sakari, we tested Takara's cycle for three hormones and we monitored her. Her very first cycle was right when they predicted it, a year and a half. They wanted that first cycle to go by just to make sure there was nothing unhealthy about it, and so planned for the second cycle. Only six weeks later, I artificially inseminated her with Kshamenk's sperm after only 1 ½ years of birthing Sakari.
Orcas are trained to present themselves for  the artificial insemination process. It involves extrac...
Orcas are trained to present themselves for the artificial insemination process. It involves extracting sperm from a male orca and placing it in the female.
Voice of the Orcas
Looking back at the whales who have died in pregnancy, or who have delivered stillborn calves or miscarried them, Hargrove is convinced that there is a connection between breeding them unnaturally young and breeding them again at such unnaturally short intervals. "It has to effect the ability for them to have a safe calf," he said.
SeaWorld has lost several pregnant orcas over the years and several calves. Many of them were either stillborn or miscarried. As for the pregnant mothers, Nootka IV died from complications one month after giving birth; Kenau died during her 12th month of pregnancy from a septic calf; Samoa also died in childbirth, Haida II succumbed during her 5th month of pregnancy.
Gudrun's case was particularly haunting, her calf had to be manually winched out of her. Both the mother and calf died. Later, one of Gudrun's surviving offspring, Taima, endured the same fate. She would become the first orca to ever undergo a Cesarean section; she bled out and died.
Ceta-Base.com lists the births, deaths and names of all killer whales that are held, or have been held, across all three of SeaWorld's parks. The Orca Project also details 30 unsuccessful orca births that have occurred during captivity throughout the world as of December 05, 2013.
According to Hargrove, Takara's 2012 calf loss occurred in between giving birth to Sakari in 2010 and Kamea in 2014. "She absorbed it," said the former trainer, "and she was almost exactly eight months along."
At just 22 years old, Takara has already been pregnant five times.
As for Kalia, other sources have suggested that she may have bred naturally. If this is the case, then Ulises appears less likely to be the father. Hargrove told DJ that the male orca had been seen mating with other females. "We always believed Ulises' sperm count was too low," he said, "we saw him breed with Kasatka but he never produced a calf."
It was through AI however, that Ulises was credited with fathering Moana, a killer whale at Marineland in France. With only three other male whales at SeaWorld San Diego to naturally mate with, options are limited. Keet as Kalia's sire is unlikely, so this leaves only Nakai or Ikaika.
It is also possible that Kalia's ultrasound may have been for an entirely different reason, but unless SeaWorld absolutely confirms this, it is not possible to know. Still, for Dr. Ventre, SeaWorld has done, and continues to do, a great of damage with their breeding program.
"The bottom line is that SeaWorld continues to behave in an unethical manner in regard to it's breeding program," he said, "which is leading to mothers rejecting their offspring, as well as overcrowding."
But SeaWorld shows no sign of stopping, unless something like AB-2140 tells them to. "I see SeaWorld continuing to breed their captives as rapidly as possible," Ventre said. If they run out of space he suggested, they'll just ship them overseas. "Loro Parque in Tenerife has several SeaWorld animals," Ventre explained, "because the company didn't have space in its own parks."
But he also fears that SeaWorld could look elsewhere. With cetacean captivity increasing in Asia and the Middle East, the former trainer said he could see SeaWorld, "selling or leasing "extra members of its collection" to places, like Korea, China, Russia, or United Arab Emirates. They are interested in getting into the business of captivity for Blackfish," Ventre concluded.
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