MYSTIC, Conn. (WPRI) – Mystic Aquarium was flagged for three “critical violations” of animal welfare law during an inspection last year by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA inspected the aquarium’s beluga whale exhibit last September after 5-year-old Havok died. The whale was one of five captive-born belugas that were transported to Connecticut from an overcrowded aquarium in Ontario last summer.
The inspection report says the whale was under 24-hour surveillance due to ongoing health issues, and eight hours before it died was in a state of extreme discomfort and distress.
Havok, according to the inspection report, rolled over frequently, had “wasted” breathing, had water coming from his blowhole and was bleeding from an open wound on his muzzle.
Although staff monitoring the whale’s condition recorded the whale’s symptoms, the inspection report claims they did not alert the attending veterinarian until after it died.
“The facility failed to provide adequate veterinary care by failing to use appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat disease during the last eight hours of Havok,” the report concludes.
Another violation cited in the inspection report details an incident in which Havok, who had poor eyesight, collided with one of the gates that separate the aquarium’s three pools.
The collision happened after a visitor dropped a foreign object into the pool, according to the inspection report.
The other whales in the exhibit were watched by dog handlers while aquarium staff removed the object, but Havok was not, according to the inspection report. It was then that he swam straight into the door, reopening an existing wound on his muzzle and creating a new one on his left mandible, among other traumatic injuries.
“The dropping of foreign objects into exhibits by members of the public is an expected event,” the inspection report said. “The handling of the whales when responding to a foreign object falling into the pool was not done with as much care as possible to ensure the safety of all the animals, including Havok, who was visually impaired known, a history of swimming within the walls of the habitat, and a disposition to be “frightened”.
Pool conditions were also a concern. The inspection report indicates that Havok injured himself several times by bumping into objects, including the habitat walls themselves.
“Indoor and outdoor accommodation facilities for marine mammals must be structurally sound and must be maintained in good repair to protect the animals from injury,” the inspection report said.
Other issues listed in the inspection report include poor water quality and lack of adequate shelter in the exhibit to protect the whales from direct sunlight. Both of these concerns were immediately addressed by the aquarium after Havok’s death.
Since the initial inspection, a second whale imported from Canada has died and a third remains in intensive care.
In a statement, Mystic Aquarium said the condition of the third whale has improved and vets are optimistic that he is fully recovered.
The aquarium also said it addressed all concerns in the original inspection report, adding that a new report released Wednesday did not cite any additional USDA concerns.
“Mystic Aquarium appreciates the USDA’s vigilance and aligns itself with the fact that the welfare of all animals is of the utmost importance,” the aquarium said.
The Animal Welfare Institute tried unsuccessfully to prevent the whales from being transported to the Mystic Aquarium, calling it “unprecedented import demand”.
The nonprofit now calls on federal agencies in charge of whales during their transport “to strengthen animal health surveillance at wildlife border crossings.”
“Something has gone terribly wrong with this transport,” Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute said in a statement. “Border procedures need to be strengthened. When live animals enter the United States and their research permit is based on the health of all animals, every effort should be made to ensure that the animals are indeed healthy.
Rose said she was appalled by the violations listed in the initial inspection report, adding that it clearly documented “basic common sense lapses”.
“Mystic rushed this transport, rather than waiting to make sure the whales were completely healthy,” she said.
The aquarium, however, assured that it would never import whales deemed to be in poor health.
“Mystic Aquarium identified what we thought were healthy animals, and this was highlighted by the Canadian veterinarian who signed the health certificates when she determined they were fit to travel,” added the aquarium.