Orca Morgan, the oblivious martyr?
Introduction: Morgan's pregnancy
On December 3, 2017 it was confirmed to the public that Morgan is pregnant. Dr. Jorge Soares, veterinary director of Loro Parque confirmed this with a statement. This again sparked up a lot of controversy from all kinds of parties, especially animal rights groups and animal activists. Through the years these have reported numerous times that Morgan has health problems, is attacked and harassed by the other orcas and is even being mistreated. Loro Parque however has reacted on these statements as being false. Apart from Loro Parque’s medical team several independent vets and researchers have been examining Morgan during the time she has been in Loro Parque to back up this statement. One of which is Andrew G. Greenwood who released an official health assessment online in 2013 stating Morgan was in excellent health.
In the last six years I have been to Loro Parque myself numerous times to witness the status and treatment of Morgan, both behind the scenes as well as a normal visitor. I have yet to conclude any of the accusations mentioned above. In light of the latest claims on Morgan’s wellbeing, her pregnancy and with yet another court case filed by animal extremists, I decided to come and visit her again together within a small team of two. The goal; witness and record what we would see upon visiting Morgan again as well as to talk with several of the experts at Loro Parque to clarify uncertainties among the public. The following report and interview is the result of this visit. We had the opportunity to talk with Dr Javier Almunia, Director of Environmental affairs and essential contributor of several research studies regarding orcas about Morgan’s pregnancy and subjected him to the following questions:
How old is Morgan currently and how was this confirmed?
Dr Almunia: “It is impossible to know her exact age seeing as she was already several years old when she was found. Because of this it will always be an estimate. We have however compared several statistics of the growth rates in orcas both in the wild and in Loro Parque to come with an estimate of around 10 or 11 years as her current age. When she was rescued she was estimated to be 2 or 3 years old. At that time she was however heavily malnourished and probably much smaller than she was supposed to be. a more accurate age at the time of her rescue would be between 3 or 4 years”.
For how long has Morgan been pregnant?
“We discovered her pregnancy in November 2017 and it was estimated that she was around 5 months pregnant at that time. We expect her to give birth near the end of 2018”. How did Morgan become pregnant? “It was a natural mating. We do not practice artificial insemination at Loro Parque. The father is at this time unknown as it was a spontaneous act when the animals were socializing and it happened outside of our observations”.
How did you find out Morgan was pregnant?
“During a regular routine actually. We use ultrasounds to monitor the cycle and ovaries of the females, a small fetus was discovered during this. It was only discovered after 5 months because the uterus is very large and the large amount of body fat on orcas distorts the ultrasound which makes it easy to miss something. Especially when it is not the main focus to look for a fetus.”
Do you not check for hormone levels in the female orcas?
“We do not include hormone checks as a medical routine as breeding is not our focus. We do observe the cycle of the females so we can separate them from the males in their fertile period. This way we do not have to distribute birth control medication to them, which can possibly be harmful on a long term. Yet they are able to display their natural behavior”.
Was the pregnancy planned?
“No, absolutely not. We did want to give Morgan the chance to be a mother in the future, as this is an important part of the animals natural behavior. However we had the intention on waiting a couple more years before expanding our group of orcas”.
Is it true that you were actually not allowed to breed her and agreed to that when receiving Morgan?
“It is absolutely not true that there are any limitations to breeding Morgan. This is a lie spread by animal right groups to make their argument stronger. The Free Morgan Foundation actually received a clarification from the Spanish government that there are no limitations for Loro Parque in the housing and keeping of Morgan, yet they continue to spread this lie. We have the documents to prove this and are happy to hand this out to anyone interested”.
Is there enough space for another orca?
“There is more than enough space for Morgan to have a baby and for this calf to grow up. We are far from reaching the limit of space available for our animals”.
Are the rumors of a possible expansion true?
“There was a realistic plan to expand the pool system of the orca habitat. This was planned to happen in a few years. However with the current pregnancy this was put on-hold. Construction close to a pregnant animal and growing calf could be stressful and we want to avoid that”.
Can Morgan’s deafness play a role as a possible complication?
“We really do not know if Morgan’s deafness is something she had since birth and if it can be genetically transmissible. It is possible, but there several other possibilities such as trauma, sonar or even a pathogenic cause like a bacterial infection that caused her hearing impairment. So it is impossible to know at this point if the calf will display something similar”.
Could her deafness restrict the caretaking of the calf?
“It might happen that the calf has difficulties in understanding and interpretation of the dialect because Morgan also doesn’t. Unless the other orcas will have a role in this. This however will have a huge value research-wise. There are already scientists who showed interest in the development of the calves learning curve for the dialect. It will be very interesting to see if the dialect is taught mainly by the mother of an individual or by the entire pod”.
What are the risks that this pregnancy brings?
“As a first time mother there might be a possibility Morgan will not know how to handle the calf. If this is the case we have a professional team with a lot of knowledge and experience in hand rearing orca calves. Two of our calves born here were unfortunately rejected by their mother, so we needed to step in and manage the caretaking of the calves ourselves. Both of these times it was successful. One of the calves named Adán is still living here today, the other calf was named Vicky who unfortunately passed away due to intestinal problems. These were however not related to birth complications or the hand rearing process. So we consider both occasions very successful. Births in orcas and marine mammals in general are always high-risk. Even in the wild 52% of the calves will not reach their first year. This is however a rough estimate as it is hard to tell in the wild when an orca is pregnant and if the pregnancy failed or not. The main cause is because of the low immune system calves display when they are newborn. We will do everything in our power to assist Morgan and guarantee the calves survival”.
We were allowed to visit the orca habitat behind the scenes during the morning and afternoon to witness the routine of the trainers and orcas, one of which being medical training sessions. During the routines we witnessed many occurrences of social behavior between Morgan and the other orcas. She was grouped with different animals through the day. The orcas participated in training, medical training, shows and also had periods where they got their “free time” and were able to do swim freely and choose freely which behaviors to display and which animals to socialize with. Even during this free time Morgan never appeared to be swimming alone. She seemed to prefer the company of Adán, the youngest orca of the group the most. Morgan appeared very active both in general behavior as socially, yet her behavior was in a calm matter. Whenever a trainer appeared she seemed very interested and alert. During the course of the day we observed various medical routines practiced by the trainers and veterinarian staff. Among these were taking a urine sample as well as a blood sample from Morgan. We also witnessed the attendance of Morgan’s oral health during which her teeth were disinfected. Both wild and captive orcas show tooth wear because of interactions with other orcas and their surroundings. This is monitored closely and treatment is given when necessary. Morgan stayed very calm during all these procedures and did not show any sign of stress or pain. She was rewarded afterwards.
Medical training The most important training regarding the care of animals is the medical training. These are a number of medical routines that are practiced regularly creating the possibility to monitor an animal’s health voluntarily. Even voluntary treatment is possible thanks to this training. An example of the medical procedures of the orcas at Loro Parque are taking blood samples, urine samples, a sample of the exhalation of the blowhole, ultrasounds, measuring the animals, weighing the animals and a check-up of the physical health of the animal (eyes, teeth etc,). By practicing these routines regularly the orcas get used to these procedures which makes it more efficient to monitor and maintain the animals health. Medical training is used by many zoological facilities on a lot of different species. The medical training used on dolphins and orcas however is very advanced and one of the most stress-free methods existing today. The orcas work in direct contact with their caretakers and they do not have to be sedated or restrained for physical check-ups, minor treatments, blood sampling or even transportation. As the animal is rewarded via the positive reinforcement method is it unlikely to link negative experiences or emotions to these routines. Above: Taking a urine sample Below: Attendance of oral health During these training sessions it became very clear that Morgan was used to these medical routines as she seemed to understand what was asked from her. She appeared very calm and waited for the signals of the trainers as she displayed the asked behaviors. We were able to see her entire body numerous times as it is still safe for her to come completely out of the water to be weighed. Her skin appeared smooth with some superficial scratches. No wounds, deep scars or fresh rakemarks were visible. Her weight on the scale was between 2200 to 2300 kilograms with 2324 kg being the highest recorded weight at the time of our visit.
The training process of the orcas and dolphins at Loro Parque is in every way reached with the “Positive Reinforcement” method. Most people may already be familiar with it as the most well-known variation of this method is the so called “clicker training”, which is very popular in pets. The basic principle of this method is to reward the animal for a desirable behavior. When the animal displays an undesirable behavior it is ignored instead of correcting it or giving it punishment. Then the behavior is asked again. The main purpose of this training method is to have the animal displaying desired behaviors without experiencing negativity such as stress, fear or aggression. The method is very successful as the animal only experiences positive or neutral stimuli. Therefore it is used on hundreds of species today of which mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and even insects! The key to marine mammal training is to use a signal that clarifies to the animal they are displaying the desired behavior and that a reward is following. This signal is used in the form of a high frequency whistle. The reward is mainly food as this is instinctively a highly positive stimulus for animals, but this certainly not always the case. The orcas at Loro Parque are also rewarded with things such as a toy, gelatin, ice cubes, water sprays or the enthusiasm of their trainer, (similar to for example dog training). During our stay we also observed Morgan being rewarded with this so called “Secondary Reinforcement” rewards.
We returned at a random day as normal park guests to find out if there was anything different from our observations during the first visit. We didn’t conclude any. The period before, during and after the shows the back-pools are visible for the public. Several medical training sessions and free-time sessions could be observed at the from the audience grandstand. Morgan was not even used in every show, as many activists claim. In fact she only had segments in one of the four shows that day and mostly swam freely in the back-pools during others. Above: Morgan receiving a secondary reinforcement reward Overall Morgan seemed like a normal, healthy orca that did not display any abnormal or atypical behavior just like in previous visits. We have witnessed her socializing with both the other orcas and her trainers. We were happy to conclude that the current accusations made by several animal right groups are once again wrong.