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NewCityNet Beluga Caveat

Can whales survive Chicago's aquarium?

By Sam Weller

OCTOBER 26, 1998: 

For the Shedd Aquarium's whale program, the third time had better be charmed

There's a furor over white whales in Chicago and it has absolutely nothing to do with Herman Melville.

It's morning at the Shedd Aquarium's three-million-gallon Oceanarium. On the other side of the 215-pane wall of windows, a light drizzle mists over Lake Michigan. With the gauzy blanket of gray outside and the northern rainforest motif on the inside, the place feels downright Canadian.

A beluga whale with the Inuit name Puiji (pronounced Poo-EE-jee) breaks the glassy surface of the Oceanarium's 68-degree water. Her misshapen, nicked white back rises gently up before she glides back under the waves. Puiji and another whale, Immiayuk, are pregnant. This has folks at the Shedd Aquarium pensively thrilled. The development also has animal-rights activists in an uproar. Of course, this is nothing new for the Shedd.

On September 22, 1992, Dr. Jeff Boehm gave two of the aquarium's white whales routine inoculations of the anti-parasite formula levamisol. Fifteen minutes after the shots were administered, both whales died. Subsequent pathology studies were inconclusive, but an adverse reaction to the medicine was deemed a likely cause of death.

Just two months earlier, both creatures had been swimming free in the chilly Churchill River along the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada. They were captured to become the centerpiece attractions of the new Oceanarium.

But after the belugas died, Boehm, a rail-thin man with an abiding love for the marine mammals in his care, found himself a smoldering leaf under the media magnifying glass. Headlines revealed that although the doctor had applied for an Illinois veterinary license, Boehm was still not an officially sanctioned vet outside of the state of California. In fact, his application for Land of Lincoln credentials was postmarked the day the animals perished.

Six years later, Boehm has been exonerated of any error in the deaths of the two beluga whales. According to investigators, the good doctor did everything by the book. Why the medicine, long used on captive belugas, killed these two will likely never be known. But levamisol is no longer used on marine mammals because of the deaths.

Three months after the tragedy, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans banned the capture of belugas for export. Although both Canada and the Shedd Aquarium insisted the deaths were not a factor in the moratorium, "We were under a lot of pressure," said Claire Beaulac, a spokeswoman for the Canadian department. Heat from environmental groups, along with an advisory group's recommendation, meant that Americans could no longer head north, load into dinghies and net the white whales.

Tragedy struck the Shedd's beluga program again in 1998. This past June, Mauyak, a 16-year-old, 1,220-pound whale on loan from Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, gave birth in the Oceanarium. Unfortunately, that's also where the calf died.

"It was too weak to swim," says Ken Ramirez with a look of sorrow. The Shedd's director of training and husbandry sits behind a desk in his tiny office nestled in the bowels of the aquarium. There are no windows, only rows and rows of books on Cetaceans, the order in which whales, porpoises and dolphins belong.

"We feel that what we did during the pregnancy this past year was right. It was really a very good program," Ramirez says. "Mom was doing great. The baby simply wasn't strong enough to come up for air after it was born. What you have to understand is this is all still very new. Prior to 1990, there had been no beluga whales born in captivity. We're still learning.

"We will see success," the 41-year-old Ramirez continues. "Bottlenose dolphins, for example, who have been in zoos for a long time, are breeding very, very well. California sea lions, they're breeding right and left. Harbor seals, breeding all over the place. Killer whales, there was no successful breeding prior to 1985. Since then, there have been fifteen, twenty births." To date, seven belugas have been born in North American zoos and aquariums.

In the Shedd's off-limits-to-the-public, 35,000-gallon veterinary pool, Dr. Boehm crouches on a gradual cement incline leading into the water. Salt water laps at his black rubber waders. Puigi glides up to him and eases onto her side. She has the look of all belugas - that whimsical, eternal smile.

An ultrasound machine, which could pass for a sci-fi version of a Jiffy Lube diagnostic computer, is wheeled to the pool's edge. Soon, a pediatrician from St. Joseph's Hospital holds a device that looks like an air-hockey paddle up to the beluga's belly and begins moving it around in gentle circles. Within seconds, the ultrasound screen displays a black-and-white image that, according to the swarm of staffers standing around, represents a healthy fetus in the early stages of development. So far, so good. At least for the Shedd.

"Why do they keep doing this?" asks Naomi Rose, a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States. The animal-rights group opposes the capturing and breeding of beluga whales - especially at the Shedd. "There are four species that we've taken a very firm position on, feeling that they don't belong in captivity," Rose says. "Belugas are one of them. The others are orcas, false killer whales and pilot whales. They're just too big. While belugas in captivity have a relatively decent survival record, they have a pretty poor natality record."

This seems to be a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full argument between the Humane Society and the Shedd. After all, says spokesperson Katie McGinley, "Fifty percent of beluga whales born in the wild die. Fifty percent in captivity don't make it. The numbers are the same." She leans over an Oceanarium railing as a Pacific white-sided dolphin bullets by.

Asked to respond to McGinley's assertion, Rose lets out an agitated laugh. "Here's the deal," she says. "These institutions argue that whales and dolphins are better off in captivity so they don't get preyed upon, they aren't subject to pollution and they aren't subject to parasites. They get regular veterinary care. They get three square meals a day. Arguably, as a result of this 'extra-care,' they should be living longer and having better birth records than animals in the wild. Yet it's not the case. You can't use this argument when it's convenient for you and then when your natality record is bad say, 'Well, that's the way it is in the wild, too.'"

Ken Ramirez, hands folded atop his desk, does not shy away from the Shedd's controversial beluga track record - or the fact that the latest pregnancies have placed the aquarium in a harsh spotlight. "We could simply just not tell the city of Chicago that the whales are pregnant," he says. "Then, if it's not successful, no one knows but us. But we want to be honest with the public and the media even if it is often times uncomfortable." Ramirez also acknowledges that the three whale deaths have come in addition to three dolphin fatalities at the aquarium since 1991.

"The day the two whales died in 1992 was one of the worst - worst - days of my life," Ramirez says. "We love these creatures. If I thought for a minute that they were being mistreated or mishandled or if they were unhappy, I would be outside the Shedd with a picket sign in my own hands. We will very soon learn more about the birthing process and successfully breed belugas. It's like asking, 'Why haven't you found a cure for cancer? Why haven't you found a cure for AIDS?' You keep working at it. It doesn't mean you won't find one. It just means that it eludes you and to think that we are such superior beings that we should be able to solve every problem right away may be a little bit arrogant on our part."

So what exactly has the Shedd learned from the previous whale mishaps that will help ensure that the two expectant mother belugas will soon have healthy babies?

"We're at a point right now," Dr. Boehm says, "with other institutions in the States and globally, where we're all learning incrementally about reproduction of whales and dolphins. We're refining the way we care for them, refining the way we monitor them during pregnancies, learning bits and pieces about what happens during those early hours after birth and the first few weeks after that."

Boehm expresses cautious optimism about next year's beluga births, but warns that both mothers are pregnant for the first time. "Each one of these [births] is still somewhat of a novel experience. I wish I had all the powers, but unfortunately I don't."

In most respects, then, these two pregnancies will be handled by Boehm and Ramirez - along with their team of twenty marine-mammal specialists and fifty volunteers - in much the same way as they assisted the birth of the beluga baby that died in June.

"When it comes right down to it, there's not a lot that a person can do," Boehm says. "The calf, when born, needs to be strong enough to live in its environment. If it's not, there's probably something wrong that we're not going to be able to correct. However, as much as we are excited about these pregnancies and thrilled at the opportunities that they present, it's difficult not to want to intervene. You want to give the calf and the mom every chance to make it on their own."

Adds Ramirez, "The first pregnancy here, this past June - as absolutely tragic as it was to lose the calf, I don't see it as a failure for our program. It was a failure for that particular pregnancy, but it was an important step. It certainly doesn't speak badly for breeding of beluga whales."

But the Humane Society's Rose continues to speak badly of the practice. "Why are belugas dying at the same rate, at best, as those in the wild?" she asks from the society's Washington, D.C. headquarters. "Mothers in captivity should be healthy with thick blubber and lots of milk. The vets are hanging over those moms when they're giving birth. The vets are right there to catch the calf like a football. So why are they dying?"

An academic version of Santa Claus, Dr. R.H. Defran sports a white beard and roly-poly physique to go with his holly-jolly demeanor. As director of the Cetacean Behavior Laboratory at San Diego State University, Defran spends most of his days cruising up and down the Southern California Coast studying the migratory patterns of Pacific bottlenose dolphins.

The doctor has also spent much time monitoring the behavior of the beluga whales at the San Diego Sea World operation - a facility that the Humane Society's Rose calls "the worst of all the institutions that display captive marine mammals." Rose cites the proliferation of noisy shows - complete with loud music, screaming kiddies, pyrotechnic spectacle and mini-bike bombast - as simply being bad for the whales. But having spent twenty-seven years studying cetaceans in their natural environment, Defran isn't so quick to vilify institutions that display marine mammals.

"If you work with captive animals," he says, "you will have to contend with public sentiment about captivity. You will always have scientists who will raise a ruckus and animal-rights activists who will raise a ruckus. But in the end, if you were to conduct a poll of the people in this industry, the overwhelming opinion is that it's a wonderful resource for education and research.

"In truth," Defran adds, "people are kind of in an uproar over what they are able to complain about rather than the fifty, sixty belugas that may die all at once in a bad storm in the Arctic. When that happens, who gives a flying fuck? You know, the Eskimo that pops one in the bag because he's hungry."

And as outspoken as the Humane Society is on the subject of captive whales, Rose admits the Shedd isn't at the bottom of the tank. "They try harder to put things in their natural context in order to educate," she says. "But when it comes right down to it, with all the fancy Canadian landscaping in the Oceanarium, the whales don't care about that stuff. What the belugas see is a tank, not the spruce tree in the corner."

Outside the Shedd Aquarium, late on a chilly weekend night, the reflection of a blood-orange harvest moon shimmers across Lake Michigan. In the cold salt water on the other side of the glass, Puigi and Immiayuk swim on, full-bellied belugas with babies on board. Controversy? The whales' ever-present smiles seem to say: What controversy?

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