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Op-Ed: Vet documents show SeaWorld uses valium-type drugs for cetaceans

By Elizabeth Batt     Apr 1, 2014 in Environment
Still battling controversy in the wake of the documentary Blackfish, court-filed documents reveal that SeaWorld has doped several killer whales with benzodiazepines — a class of drug that includes Valium and Xanax.
The documents were filed as a sworn affidavit in a 2011 legal wrangle between SeaWorld and Marineland of Canada.
SeaWorld had sent the killer whale named Ikaika (Ike) to the Niagara Falls marine park on a breeding loan. After expressing concern for the orca's welfare however, SeaWorld requested the animal's return.
In an attempt to keep Ike at Marineland, the Canadian-based park filed suit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice but lost the case. Part of the case featured the sworn affidavit of Dr. Lanny Cornell, a former SeaWorld senior executive and vet, who left the company and took a consultation role at Marineland.
BuzzFeed today released Cornell's testimony, which details Ike's medical history and sheds some rarely-seen light on animal husbandry techniques.
The affidavit divulged several concerns about the young whale:
— At just four years of age, Ike suffered with a chronic dental problems due to manual tooth drilling that left the young whale with open holes in his teeth. He suffered several dental infections requiring repeated antibiotic treatment.
— Cornell suggested that a four year period is needed for the birth and the nursing of killer whales. If so, this supports conservation group statements that accused SeaWorld of separating young whales from their mothers too early.
— Ike had a history of aggression and was treated with tranquilizers.
— In Aug. 2006, Ike was reported as being "underfed." The plan to address this, the affidavit said, included, "strong words to encourage increase in ration."
— Diazepam was also given to two other SeaWorld orcas after Taku and Ike showed aggression towards Tina's (Katina) calf. SeaWorld first administered Diazepam to Tina and Taku and then suggested for Ike, who had attempted to breed with the calf, "we will try to mellow him as well," with 80 mg of Diazepam twice a day.
Drugs are used under medical advice says SeaWorld
SeaWorld defended its decision to use sedatives in the treatment of its animals. Company spokesperson Fred Jacobs, told BuzzFeed:
Benzodiazepines are sometimes used in veterinary medicine for the care and treatment of animals, both domestic and in a zoological setting. These medications can be used for sedation for medical procedures, premedication prior to general anesthesia, and for the control of seizures.
Jacobs went on to state that the use of benzodiazepines for cetaceans are infrequent and used under medical guidance from a veterinarian, but he did not comment on the use of such drugs to "mellow" out animals, as noted in the court-filed vet records.
Ike's dental issues are not uncommon for orcas in captivity. In this piece published at Decoded Science, former SeaWorld trainers, Drs. Jeffrey Ventre and John Jett, suggested that irreversible tooth damage is a consequence of captivity for most orcas held in an artificial environment.
Medications too, are a daily occurrence. From vitamins to Valium, modified medicines are used to control infections, gastric issues and even unwanted behaviors, such as aggression.
Medications for marine mammals
"All the animals receive daily vitamins formulated for marine mammals," a marine park insider told Digital Journal on the condition of anonymity. "They are given as supplements because the fish freezing and thawing process removes nutrients," he added.
One known major supplier of vitamin supplements for cetaceans is Mazuri. Another supplier is Lanny Cornell himself. As the President of Pacific Research Laboratories, Inc., Cornell's company makes Sea Tabs®, a vitamin regimen designed to replace nutrients not gleaned from a diet of frozen fish.
Vitamins are one thing, but the inside source also revealed that medications may include, "Megace, Carafate (Sucralfate), Zantac (Ranitidine) and Prilosec (Omeprozole). These are the big ones," he explained.
Megace is a man-made chemical (steroid) similar to the female hormone progesterone. This is used to "alter behavior," said my source, "particularly in males during ruts or breeding seasons, and sometimes used to lower aggression."
Other commonly used medications include those that treat ulcers and control acid in marine mammals. One is Prilosec (Omeprazole), a drug whose use in cetaceans has led to documented concerns:
The long term use of Prilosec (Omeprazole) is contraindicated as it is too potent and can cause impactions due to incomplete digestion of fish bones. (Philippines' Marine Mammal Stranding Response Manual Second edition).
This too, was confirmed by the source who said that Prilosec, "can cause decreased stomach acid and the presence of "fish balls" in the stomach. Balls of fish bones that don't digest." The park insider also acknowledged that in the case of bottlenose dolphins, he had "personally seen sedatives given before transport." The medication given, he added, "was described to me, as "Valium."
The CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine discusses various responses by cetaceans to certain drugs. A common problem with antacid use in cetaceans they said, is vomiting due to overmedication. Also discussed, are the different types of sedatives used in cetacean care. Lorazepam, Oxazepam, Temazepam and of course, Diazepam, are all mentioned on page 706.
For Phil Demers, a former trainer at the Ontario-based Marineland, "Valium was the answer to all the animals' woes," he said.
Demers told DJ that Diazepam was used as an appetite stimulant if an animal stopped eating. "We would pump 'em full of it," he said, and "accidental overdoses weren't uncommon."
One time, Marineland's killer whale, Kiska, accidentally snatched Ike's Valium-laden fish, Demers explained. "The overdose caused her to become really lethargic; it was bad. She was listing on her side."
Well known for the special relationship he shares with a female walrus named Smooshi, Demers said the park used "many forms of Valium" on the walrus, "to treat her separation anxiety from me."
The former trainer also explained that an older male beluga whale at Marineland called Beyli, is regularly treated with benzodiazepines. According to, Beyli is a wild-caught whale captured from the White Sea in 1994.
The whale refuses to go through the gates between pools Demers tells me, meaning that during breeding season, trainers are unable to separate him from the females. "So he's fed a Valium dose that would blow your mind," the ex-trainer said, and "he becomes a useless blob of jello."
Demers is currently being sued by Marineland owner John Holer but is looking forward to his day in court and the exposure it will bring for the animals held there. "I told Marineland that the world is watching. I'm not giving up on those animals," he said.
Meanwhile, Fred Jacobs told BuzzFeed, "There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care."
Only if they conform it seems.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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