Specialists worldwide race to make diagnosis

Friday, November 18th, 2016

The Vancouver Sun

“It’s been a hard 24 hours,” John Nightingale, the aquarium’s president, told a news conference Thursday afternoon. “In the 30 years I’ve worked in aquariums, never has the loss of an animal affected me like this has. Qila wasn’t just another whale. … We saw her born. We watched her grow up. We watched her engage millions of people, which is exactly our mission.”

Qila died Wednesday morning under the gaze of trainers just before the aquarium opened after showing symptoms of abdominal discomfort and nausea, and refusing to interact with staff or eat, Nightingale said.

He said staff are keeping a 24hour watch over Aurora, the lone surviving beluga at the aquarium.

“She appears to be displaying some of the same symptoms as Qila did before her very sudden passing away,” he said.

Nightingale said a necropsy performed on Qila Wednesday didn’t yield any conclusions. Blood and tissue samples have since been sent for analysis to specialists in the U.S. and around the world, Nightingale said.

 Blood and tissue samples have since been sent for analysis to specialists in the U.S. and around the world, Nightingale said.

Fewer than 100 captive belugas have been closely studied, making diagnosis a challenge, he said.

“You don’t have as much to go on,” Nightingale said. “The fact that we saw something new in Qila’s death is not surprising. It’s demoralizing, but it’s not surprising.”

He said Aurora is “off display, in a hospital-like environment in our medical pool, and will remain so until she recovers her health.”

Martin Haulena, the aquarium’s head veterinarian, accompanied Qila to the provincial animalhealth centre in Abbotsford for Wednesday’s necropsy. Aurora’s worsening condition gave urgency to global efforts to find out what killed Qila, Haulena said.

“There is nothing, unfortunately, for us to hang our hats on in terms of guiding treatment for Aurora, who is now exhibiting similar signs,” Haulena said.

A walled-off abscess found in one of Qila’s lungs had been there longer than she was sick. Analysts are searching for signs of a viral or bacterial cause, or a food- or waterborne toxin.

“Obviously we have to assume that whatever Qila succumbed to is also what is affecting Aurora, but that might not be the case,” Haulena said.

Qila’s death reignited the debate over keeping belugas and other cetaceans in captivity, with activists calling for an end to in-captivity breeding of the animals and a phasing out of beluga displays.

Nightingale rejected that idea Thursday, saying the whale displays raise awareness of threats to the world’s oceans.

“(The animals) are going to be just as important or maybe more important 25 years from now,” he said.

The aquarium stopped accepting animals captured from the wild in 1996 — Aurora was caught in Hudson Bay in 1990 — but continues breeding the whales, with its other five belugas on loan to U.S. marine parks for breeding purposes.

The aquarium is set to begin construction next year on an expanded beluga tank, to be completed by late 2018 or early 2019. Some of those five belugas will be brought back to Vancouver then, Nightingale said.

© 2016 Postmedia Network Inc

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