Ethics came into question when rare whale was dyingDecember 6th, 2010 by cdunagan
UPDATE, Dec. 6
Late this afternoon, Cascadia Research posted preliminary results of a necropsy of the Bryde’s whale conducted today. Findings included the following:
- “The whale was an immature male measuring 34′ 5″ which externally appeared to be a female but which internal examination determined was a male.
- “There were at least five significant injuries on the whale, not just the two that were visible when the whale was alive. The most serious was the one visible when the whale was alive and a close examination of this showed that this blow was not only deep but had sheered off the top portion of at least two vertebra. While this injury appeared to be the likely cause of death of the animal, close examination confirmed the sighting reports that this injury had occurred many weeks or months previously.
- “The cause of all the major injuries and death of the animal still appears to be one or more vessel strikes.
- “The whale was not in great nutritional condition with a fairly thin and not very oily blubber layer.”
The rare 40-foot whale that lingered in Totten Inlet near Shelton apparently died sometime Friday or early Saturday. Up until then, researchers were feeling helpless to assist the dying animal or even put it out of its misery.
After its death, the whale was identified as a female Bryde’s whale, an extremely rare species in northern waters, let alone Puget Sound. Curiously, another Bryde’s (pronounced “broo-dess”) whale came into Puget Sound near the beginning of this year and also died in South Puget Sound. Check out the Jan. 19 report by Cascadia Research.
This second Bryde’s whale in Puget Sound was spotted on Nov. 25, although possibly related reports go back to Nov. 13. See Cascadia’s ongoing updates for details. A huge chunk of flesh was missing from the whale’s back, presumably caused by a large boat propeller.
When I talked to Cascadia’s John Calambokidis on Friday, I asked a series of questions about possible medical treatment for the animal and the potential for euthanasia — assuming researchers were convinced that the whale would die anyway. I was a little surprised to learn that John and others — including veterinarians — had already considered and rejected most options. They were feeling pretty helpless to do anything but wait.
“It has only been done in the wild on a free-swimming whales one or two times,” John told me. “It proves pretty challenging to get enough into the animal. And it is of somewhat questionable value, since the animal’s main problem may not be an infection at this time.”
Nobody likes to see any animal suffering, John said, but the idea of euthanizing the whale raises legal, ethical and practical questions:
1) Would it even be right to consider putting the whale out of its misery when there is a slim chance that the whale could survive and contribute to an endangered population? Of course, approval by federal and possibly state agencies would be needed.
2) If the decision was made to euthanize the whale, how would one go about it?
“Practically,” said Calambokidis, “you would go with two possible options.
“You could inject a large dose of drugs. Delivering that dose is challenging, but if you were successful, you have this huge toxic load to deal with.
“Another option is high-powered ballistics. But on whale this size, that would be tenuous or difficult and of questionable safety in a populated area.” If the animal were not killed immediately, the action would only increase the whale’s pain, he noted.
Despite the serious injuries, the whale was still swimming rapidly and surfacing erratically last week, so getting close enough to dispatch the animal would have been a real challenge.
I did not ask John what kind of person would be qualified to do the deed if shooting became the means of euthanasia, but that raises other legal and ethical problems.
In the end, our discussion became moot the following morning, on Saturday, when the whale was found dead on a beach in Totten inlet. A cursory examination revealed other injuries in addition to the one caused by a boat propeller.
The whale was towed Sunday afternoon to a remote site, where a necropsy is planned for this afternoon, according to the latest update.