The Trauma of Stillbirth
Cynthia Payne: I was on night watch when Nootka had a stillborn. The supervisors determined that they had to take the baby immediately. I was told it was for Nootka’s health and safety. Nootka was in the back pool, which is long and rectangular. They dropped a net the width and depth of the pool, and I saw her push the baby over the top of the net after carrying it around for a while. As she pushed the baby around, they were trying to get it from her—not just one guy, a swarm.
I asked, “Please, can’t she just have a minute?” She was vocalizing and distressed. There was a shallows on the perimeter of the pool. Most of the guys were in the shallows, using nets and poles to get the calf close enough so they could grab it. I remember Nootka did get the calf back a few times, and in the end it was a very fast heave to get it out of the pool. Nootka was panicked. It was gut-wrenching to watch.
She about killed a couple of staff. She was mad. But they took the calf, and she did everything she could to get it back. There was no honor or care. There was nothing. They just pulled the calf and threw it in the back of a truck. And they put Nootka in the med pool [a small side pool with a floor that can be raised], and that’s where she stayed the entire night. I’ll never forget it. She cried and cried for her calf.
Horton: I do remember pulling Nootka’s calf out of the pool. It was basically born sideways, folded in half. After getting it to the side of the pool, I distinctly remember that two or three of us had our arms wrapped around the calf’s fluke, and we are trying to heave it over the wall. The damn thing was so slippery. And Nootka is right there snapping at us, her sole motivation being to get the calf back, a mother in full panic mode willing to do anything to get her baby, dead or alive. It was scary.
Before the decision is made to remove a calf, there is discussion regarding how to and when. During this time, the mother is with her deceased calf undisturbed. I have seen it take hours upon hours to get a calf, utilizing a lot of manpower, creating a lot of stress on the mother and possibly other animals in the pool. It just made sense to get started, because it could take a long time. The longer the calf remains in the pool, the more damage can occur to the carcass that can undermine the findings of the true cause of death during a necropsy. The sooner you can get the mother back into her normal routine and behavior, the sooner you can best assess her overall health and disposition to determine if the birth caused her any ill affects.
I don’t believe I’ve seen any form of grieving while the calf is still in the pool. I’ve seen mothers take a calf in their mouths and swim around to elude removal. Is this grieving, or is it keeping something that belongs to them away from staff? I believe that the grieving, or what may appear to be grieving, starts once the calf is removed.
Less than a month after her stillborn calf was born, Nootka died. SeaWorld vets wondered whether her death might have been related to the complications of the stillbirth.
Mothers Killing Calves
Payne: Gudrun was always in trouble, always the nonwilling participant anytime there was a show that went wrong. She did not do well in captivity, nor did any of her offspring.
When she gave birth to Nyar, she tried to drown her. After that, we had to hand-feed Nyar and do constant physicals. I would help with physicals, and you’d flip her [to draw blood] and her fluke looked like a heroin addict’s arm.
The hand-feeding of Nyar, required because she wasn’t being nursed by Gudrun, was a challenge. Animal care had to teach Nyar to eat the same fish that mature SeaWorld killer whales eat.
Horton: I think we tried to bottle-feed Nyar. I know tube feeding was involved. Tube feeding was a constant medical treatment, to get fluids and medications in any animal that came in sick or was compromised. Tubing was so easy. We did it all the time. If you were sick, you got tubed, because it really helped.
When Nyar was close enough in age to where she didn’t need milk as much and could start eating fish, there was a huge urge to get Nyar to start eating. She had the teeth, that’s for sure, and she ended up eating fish after a long process.
What you do is put your hand in the back corner of the mouth, in the gape. If you apply enough pressure, it gets the calf to open its mouth. Then you basically keep your hand inside the mouth at the back to keep it open. Then you take whole fish, whole herring or whole capelin—Nyar required about five pounds of fish or so per session—and you’d put them in her mouth.
This had to be done between shows. So, with some of the fish, if she wasn’t eating it, or wasn’t trying, you would literally shove it down her throat. Eventually what you do with each session is place the fish so that it’s barely in the back of the throat, and then just sitting on the tongue, because you want her to learn to swallow it and physically help with the process.
But, at the same time, she’s thrashing her head from side to side and chomping her mouth, chomping on your hand, chomping on your arm. You’d have big dents and bloody holes all over your hand.
Nyar was progressing until I couldn’t do it anymore. My hands were the size of softballs. They got so swollen I couldn’t use them. So we had to teach other people to do it.
To me, I was doing something remarkable. I am trying to save a killer whale. I didn’t want to stop until my hand stopped functioning.
Eventually we got her to the point where all you have to do is pry open her mouth, put the fish in her mouth, and close it. And she’d swallow it.
Labor Gone Wrong
In February 1996, Gudrun was pregnant again and went into labor. The calf was stillborn and stuck in the birth canal. SeaWorld’s vets and the animal care staff faced the difficult dilemma of figuring out how to save Gudrun’s life.
Horton: With Gudrun, there had to be some point where the vet said, OK, we’ve got to pull this calf out. The reason why you have to do that is that the mom can go septic and end up dying. So the vets say, We’ve gotta do something to save the mother.
Gudrun was brought into the med pool. She was put into a stretcher and suspended from the crane over a lot of foam, so we could get to the calf. We put some chains or ropes around the calf’s tail to a come-along attached to a vehicle to winch it out.
We got Gudrun back in the water, and I think her uterus came out.
Gudrun died four days later. Coincidentally, in 2010, Taima, Gudrun’s first calf, also died from complications resulting from trying to give birth to a stuck and stillborn calf.
Killer Whale Transport
In November 2006, SeaWorld San Antonio shipped Kayla, an 18-year-old female, to SeaWorld Orlando. Krissy Dodge talks about helping with that transport.
Krissy Dodge: It took months for animal care to get the crate ready to go, months to get all the supplies and everything exactly ready, because there is so much involved in getting the whale on the truck. Animal care and the training staff got Kayla into the med pool and raised the bottom of the pool so there was no water. I was going to be one of the ones to help with my hands on her. But Kayla started to freak out, and she was making really loud and angry vocalizations. Her eyes got really big. She was thrashing her tail. She was really upset.
During her time at SeaWorld, Dodge kept a journal in which she recorded her experiences. Here is her account, written in the aftermath of Kayla’s transport:
"Nov. 17, 2006: Killer whale transport. Not fun. I got to work at 7am, worked a whole shift, stayed to finish up transport prep, then an evening meeting to discuss transport, which was to begin at 11pm. At 11pm we were up at Shamu [Stadium]. I was assigned to be in a wet suit to assist in getting her into the stretcher. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this. I was nervous. The whale was in the med pool, false bottom raised to beach her. She began to stress out. The trainers couldn’t get her to do what they wanted. She started thrashing and making loud vocals.
I was literally terrified. I was then told not to get in. More experienced people only. I was relieved. I was close enough to see her eyes, she was so upset and sounded like she was screaming. Animal Care staff had to leave the water several times because of the danger of being attacked. Finally they were able to get her into the stretcher and she was lifted into the box. She sat quietly for a few minutes and I was assigned to sit up on top of the box by her head and record respirations. I was within 2 feet of her head and I could see the defeated look in her eye. I felt awful. Then somehow a piece of foam that was supporting her dorsal floated towards her head. She panicked and began thrashing. She began thrusting her tail up and down and smashing the baffle above her tail. The box was shaking and water was going everywhere. I lost my balance, dropped my clipboard and moved my leg just as her giant head reared up, mouth open, towards me. I had moved just in time. I was really scared. When she calmed down I got off the box and was angry [about] what I was just a part of.”
During our conversation, Dodge elaborated further.
Dodge: That whole experience of seeing her so angry and the fear that I felt, that was a big thing for me. It was in the middle of the night. I remember lying there thinking, “What did I just help with?” I felt like it was really wrong for that whale to be so stressed out and so angry.
I was starting to feel like not only was that a stressful event for the whale, but she shouldn’t even really be here in the first place. I felt by being involved in this I was contributing to the situation. I felt ashamed that I participated in that.
At the time of this transport Kayla was pregnant. Six months later, she miscarried.
Regarding Kayla, SeaWorld’s Jacobs stated: “The transport had nothing to do with the miscarriage.”
The Decision to Leave
Sometimes the transition between life and death was particularly difficult to experience. Krissy Dodge talks about another incident that affected her decision to leave SeaWorld San Antonio that involved the birth of a baby beluga. Dodge had the night watch and was monitoring the mother and staying alert for a trail of blood, which would precede the emergence of the calf’s flukes. Dodge also recorded that experience in her journal:
"Sept 17, 2006. Sunday a week ago I had whale watch from 12am–7:30am. Siku the beluga was due at any moment. An hour into it I thought I saw a small amount of blood. I didn’t see any crunching [flexing by the mother] though, and kept watching. I saw more blood and half of the tail flukes come out. I was so excited I started shaking. I immediately called my supervisor and he arrived in 10 min. After everyone was called I got into my wetsuit in case I was needed to get into the water.
When the calf was half way out, the supervisor told us to surround the pool so if the calf went around, it wouldn’t bump into walls or flop out of the pool. The calf was born and I watched it take its first breath. It seemed to be doing OK. It was very exciting for me. I almost wanted to cry. Of course I didn’t since no one shows any emotion in our dept.
I stayed watching until I was off at 7:30am. The next day I found out that the calf was not nursing and had to be tube fed. He didn’t take it well. To do it, someone had to jump in and catch it, swim it over, then a tube was shoved down its throat. A few times milk and blood was being expelled from the blowhole. It was decided on Friday to make an emergency move of Siku and calf to a back pool. Apparently when they got into the water to move the calf, it died in a trainer’s arms. I found out it died as they were bringing it back to 72 [the necropsy room] on the back of a cart.
I had to help in the necropsy. It was my first one and was indeed traumatic. To be the one to see it being born and also the one to cut it up was really difficult. When it was finished I walked to the zoological building to get a shower. I was still taking it all in and trying not to cry. A coworker was there and asked how it went. I said it was ok, but difficult being my first one. She said, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. Soon it won’t even phase you.” To have this job, the only way to do it is to become hard and desensitized to everything. This job is so difficult. Not just physically, but emotionally. It’s made me question who I am and what I believe in. I’m ready to move on. This chapter needs to be closed.”
She elaborated further in our conversation.
Dodge: It was sad to be so exhilarated to see the birth and then to come back two days later and be the one who has to do the necropsy. Once the animal dies, it is really weird. There are meat hooks, and you hang the calf by the blowhole. It’s hard to see when you first do that sort of thing. They take brain samples and use a saw to cut through the skull.
Then, basically, for lack of a better term, the animals have to be cut up and put into 40-pound biohazard bags. And those are put into cardboard boxes and then into a freezer. Then, whenever the truck would come, they were taken to be cremated.
In 1987, SeaWorld acquired a male killer whale called Kanduke from Marineland in Ontario and transported him to Orlando. “Duke,” as he was sometimes referred to, had been caught off Canada’s Pacific coast in 1975 and was older and bigger than Kotar. Horton recalls what happened when the two killer whales from different oceans were first introduced and the unusual injury that resulted.
Horton: Duke showed up at Orlando in early 1987. When he first hit the pool, Kotar and Kanduke were both on either side of a gate, going at it. That’s when Duke got bit on his penis, as soon as he arrived. There was splashing and chaos, and you could see dicks in the air, and the gate was rattling back and forth. No one knew how severe the injury was. We thought it was possible it was bitten off, because there was blood coming out of Kanduke’s genital slit. So we immediately began a 24-hour watch. The pool turned green from all the blood [mixing with the blue water], and that’s a big pool. We kind of jokingly called it Dickwatch ’87, because no one knew if it was bitten off or not or how severe it was. Kanduke’s penis didn’t show again for three or four days. We finally got to see it, and there were rake marks [lacerations from Kotar’s teeth] close to the tip. Kanduke bred, so I guess it still worked after that.