2 beluga whales soon to bow out Aquarium cites accidental death

January 25, 1992|By David Michael Ettlin

The National Aquarium has decided to remove its two surviving beluga whales -- in part because of the apparent killing of a beluga by a dolphin last month during a training exercise in the Marine Mammal Pavilion.

Aquarium Director Nicholas Brown said last night that the decision to give up the beluga and concentrate on dolphins was made Thursday and announced to his staff in a written memo but was not made public before word had leaked out. It was reported last night by WBAL-TV.

"I don't have any idea when they're going or where they're going," Mr. Brown said. "To be honest, we haven't decided."

Mr. Brown cited three reasons:

* A "traffic problem" caused by the aquarium's growing dolphin population, with two pregnant females thought to be nearing delivery.

* Fears that contact between the two species might result in another death, even though it had never before been known to happen in captivity.

* Too few remaining beluga to meet summer show schedule needs without overworking the two survivors.

The death of the 10-year-old beluga named Anore occurred Dec. 23 -- three days before the first anniversary of the $35 million marine mammal showplace -- and brought renewed outcries from animal rights activists complaining of cruelty in the capture and exhibition of dolphins and whales.

Anore had been captured along with another beluga, Illamar, in the Churchill River in Manitoba, Canada, and was brought to Baltimore to replace dolphins that had failed to thrive in the noisy environment of the old main exhibit tank in the original aquarium building.

One dolphin died in 1981 from a gastric ulcer blamed on stress, and three others that became ill had to be sent elsewhere.

Another dolphin, on loan to the aquarium, died of pre-existing heart and kidney problems days after its arrival here.

Illamar also did not fare well in captivity, dying of a bacterial infection in 1989. Then Anore was killed Dec. 23 -- apparently by a blow from a dolphin that broke several ribs and ruptured her heart.

The remaining female beluga whales, Kia and Sikku, have been closely monitored since the training mishap and are reported in good health.

Mr. Brown said he hoped they might be moved to another facility for use in a captive breeding program, perhaps in a trade for more dolphins.

Beluga were a crowd favorite at the aquarium in large part because of their seeming playfulness and interaction with people, and their smiling-face appearance.

They seemed to find amusement in swimming to the edge of the performance tank after a show and splashing water over people standing below them, and would nod in imitation of visitors watching them through observation windows.

"The death of Anore was by any standard a freak accident," Mr. Brown said last night, but he added that "we feel it would be irresponsible to put ourselves in a position for that ever to happen again."

In avoiding dolphin-beluga contact, Mr. Brown said, the aquarium is facing a "logistics nightmare" in moving the animals through four interlocking tanks.

Complicating the situation, he said, is the pregnancy of the dolphins Hailey and Shiloh -- one of them with medical complications that are being closely watched by the aquarium staff.

They were captured in the Gulf of Mexico in 1981, acquired from a Florida company and flown to Baltimore in October 1990. Staff members believe they became pregnant in late February or early March last year, and with a gestation period of 12 months the delivery dates are drawing near.

Mr. Brown said the aquarium has enough dolphins to meet the needs of its show schedules but eventually may acquire another popular mammal species -- sea lions.

"The negative of it is it is almost banal, [but] there is a lot of appeal," he said. "They're real hams. They love doing things for the public."

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