Katina, an orca who lives at SeaWorld Orlando, has suffered a significant gash to her dorsal fin.
She sustained the injury on March 17th, and SeaWorld reported it yesterday, April 1st, more than two weeks later.
SeaWorld has written in a statement that “over the next several weeks the veterinary and animal care teams will continue to monitor and treat her wounds.”
But the depth of the injury and the fact that Katina already had a collapsed dorsal fin may make it difficult for this injury to be healed.
Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Heather Rally writes:
The wound that Katina has sustained is deep, and appears to have left a large chunk of the dorsal fin missing. The dorsal fin of an orca has an extensive network of blood vessels that play a significant role in the animal’s ability to control their body temperature. It is unclear what role the injury will play in compromising the fin’s essential functions, but it is clear that it is a threat to Katina’s health.
While wild orca have been known to survive severe trauma to the dorsal fins, such as from boat strikes, captive orca are uniquely disadvantaged with respect to wound healing. They are prone to secondary infections of traumatic wounds particularly when the skin (the animal’s first line of immune defense) is broken. It is possible that this predisposition is the result of immune compromise from stress or other factors caused by the captive environment and/or exposure to land pathogens to which orca are uniquely susceptible.
Opportunistic pathogens that typically cause secondary infections are a surprisingly common cause of death in captive orca. These pathogens include fungal organisms that are ubiquitous in the environment and are generally harmless in healthy, immune-component animals.
So, it is clear that Katina’s life depends upon the success of this wound’s healing.
The cause of the injury
How could the injury have happened? SeaWorld says on its website that it was “the result of interactions with other members of the orca pod.” But there are no details, and the company appears not to know what happened. It’s hard to understand how this could have gone unobserved by staff members, or even just from video.
“It is clear that Katina’s life depends upon the success of this wound’s healing.”The company adds that orcas are “a social and hierarchal species, so interacting with other members of the pod, even in an aggressive or antagonistic manner, is a natural behavior we’d expect to see.”
The post also says that aggressive behavior is not a result of the whales living in captivity and that it is not uncommon among wild killer whale pods.
Many experts would disagree with this claim, however. Serious aggression among orcas who live together in the wild is uncommon and decidedly not normal. Orcas live in extended family groups and have very close bonds. By contrast, as Dr. Rally notes, the whales at SeaWorld Orlando are not a family group:
This so-called “pod” in Orlando consists of only two of Katina’s immediate offspring, one of whom was inbred with [her son] Taku. Another is a grandson through Taku, who would not normally live with his paternal grandmother in the wild, at least not in this close of association. The remaining two are completely unrelated to her or to each other, having been captive-born from parents or grandparents who were captured from different sides of the planet and placed in a tank together. They would never have bred together in the wild.
It’s also possible – even probable – that the injury had nothing to do with aggression by Katina’s tank mates. People who have worked at SeaWorld point out that there’s no sign of direct damage from other whales. Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove writes on Twitter:
A gash like that is when she lands on a corner or ledge of the glass or gate. Possibly being taught a new behavior using a target pole and brought her in too close.
And Dr. Jeff Ventre, a physician and former trainer at SeaWorld, offers another possible explanation:
I think her dorsal was “wedged” / positioned between two bars in her tank, possibly at a gate. She may have been resting on her left side, fin pointing toward the bottom of the pool, but between the bars. She forcibly rotated counter-clockwise, possibly approached by another whale, which tore the fin at the base, right where you’d think it would rip. Just a theory. I see no evidence of puncture wounds or bite marks.
Katina was captured from the ocean off the coast of Iceland in 1978. She has been bred seven times. Five of her calves have been taken from her and shipped to other theme parks. One of her sons, Taku, impregnated his mother before he died in 2007, a few months after being separated from her. Three of her other calves have died.
After everything she’s already suffered in her life, we wish Katina a safe recovery and hope that she may one day find peace at a seaside sanctuary.