A Whale Entangled In A Legal Battle

A Dutch court that heard the case of whether to free Morgan, a wild orca in captivity, on November 1, will not announce its decision until December 13.

Morgan’s handlers say she is unfit for release but orca experts refute this, and a legal battle has been waged between the parks where she has been held and organizations such as Free Morgan Foundation and Orca Coalition. The case is being closely watched as its outcome will set a precedent for future marine mammal rescue cases.

The young female orca was found emaciated and alone in the Wadden Sea in 2011. Estimated to be two years old, she was rescued by and placed in the care of the Dutch Dolfinarium Harderwijk, which was issued a permit only to restore her health and release her to the wild in Norway. After a year she was moved to Loro Parque, a wildlife amusement park in the Canary Islands, where she remains in captivity.

Orca biologist Dr. Ingrid Visser and orca rehabilitation expert Jeff Foster, have photo-documented sexual aggression by a large adult male held in the same tank with Morgan, who is still a juvenile female, as well as injuries and bite marks from the other orcas at Loro Parque, all of which were born in captivity, and are described by Visser and Foster as “dysfunctional.” The experts also noted signs of psychological distress by Morgan, like banging her head and chewing on the concrete walls of the tank.

The Loro Parque Foundation Deputy Director, Dr. Javier Almunia, argued on the Loro Parque blog and in court that Morgan is happy, that she has integrated well, socializes with the other orcas, and performs in whale shows at the park.

Visser had previously determined the confined space where Morgan was being held at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk and lack of socialization were taking a toll on the whale’s psychological health after she had been there a year.

Visser, other scientists and activists prepared a comprehensive plan for rehabilitating Morgan while she was there, but her handlers moved her to Loro Parque instead. The use of orcas for commercial purposes is banned by EU wildlife trade laws and a Dutch court barred the move in September 2011, but then reversed the decision after Spanish authorities argued that Loro Parque performs scientific research and education in addition to entertainment, and said Morgan’s chance for survival in the wild was very low.

Morgan’s handlers argued Morgan should not be released due to the whale’s young age, tests suggesting she is hearing impaired or deaf, and the fact that her survival would be unlikely unless her home pod could be identified and she be accepted by it.

Reports by Visser however, suggest that if rehabilitation is begun soon, there is up to an 80% chance of survival in the wild, and scientists used audio recordings to link Morgan to an appropriate pod in Norway.

Free Morgan advocates have accused Loro Parque of having ulterior motives to keep her, such as breeding her since captive orcas are facing a genetic bottleneck. High profile figures, such as Jean-Michel Cousteau, who has created one of the several petitions on Morgan’s behalf, and Prince Albert II of Monaco have supported efforts to free her.

The case raises important questions: when is it appropriate for humans to intervene with wildlife? What measures should be taken to save them? What rights do animals have? Do highly intelligent animals have more rights that less intelligent ones? Under what conditions can we keep them in captivity, if at all? Who decides what is in their best interest?


In this video you can see Morgan during her stay at Dolfinarium Harderwijk. 

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