Updated at 10 a.m. Dec. 23, 2015
What killed Unna? And did the 18-year-old killer whale suffer for more than a few months?
SeaWorld’s announcement that a female orca died Monday at its San Antonio park sparked a clash over its health history.
“Unna had been under the constant care of the SeaWorld veterinary team and outside experts for the past several months,” said a SeaWorld statement. “Unna suffered from a resistant strain of a fungus called Candida, and the team had developed a novel treatment plan in consultation with leading medical experts around the country.”
Despite signs that treatment was working, Unna (pronounced Ooo-Nuh) remained in serious condition, SeaWorld said on its blog, which also noted it was the third whale death in six months at the Texas park. (The others were belugas.)
A necropsy of the 17-foot, 4,800-pound orca, “including comprehensive laboratory testing and histopathologic review,” will be performed to determine cause of death, said SeaWorld, which stressed that fungal infections are found in wild cetaceans.
But John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld San Diego trainer, dismissed the ill-for-a-short-while story.
“She’s been very sick for at least eight years,” said Hargrove, who became a leading critic of orca captivity via the movie “Blackfish” and his book “Beneath the Surface.” “This isn’t something that’s new, that they say came up in just the last couple months. That’s total BS.”
The former Pacific Beach resident told Times of San Diego in a phone interview that “every day of her life, she was heavily medicated. SeaWorld claims the whales are thriving — that they never get sick and are exceptionally healthy.”
Chris Bellows, SeaWorld vice president of zoological operations, said: “This is an extremely difficult day for the SeaWorld family and all of Unna’s many fans. Our team formed a strong bond with Unna, which we enjoyed sharing with our guests over these past 19 years. We appreciate the support and well wishes we’ve received over the past several months. She will be missed.”
Hargrove, who now lives in New York, said he learned of Unna’s death via a text message from a journalist friend. He had two reactions: “I’m really surprised it took her this long to die” and “I just [thought] she’s better off” dead.
Unna, who suffered a miscarriage in 2006 and was six days short of turning 19, spent every day of her life on medication, Hargrove said.
“The vets never wanted her to get pregnant,” he said. “Every time she was about to cycle, she was separated from the males. … We’ve been doing that with Unna for at least a decade.”
Unna had a history of peeling paint off sides of the pool, leading to bloody jaws, Hargrove said. She also self-mutilated. Her fungal illness stumped her veterinarians, who at one point suspected a food allergy and eliminated smelt from her diet.
“Nobody knew what the hell was going on, so we were trying everything.” he said. “And this was … eight years ago.”
Hargrove called Unna “so sweet and so gentle, one of the most gentle killer whales I’ve ever worked with. …. She genuinely tried, but she just had so many health problems. It would take two trainers … 20 minutes just to stuff her meds in the fish — 20 or 30 fish stuffed with meds.”
In recent months, he was told, Unna was getting beached on a slideout of the net pool.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said Unna was the 38th SeaWorld killer whale to die, arguing the deaths were far short of their natural life spans.
SeaWorld said a new study in the Journal of Mammalogy found no difference in life expectancy between killer whales born at SeaWorld and a well-studied population of wild killer whales.
PETA said: “While the infection that probably killed this orca is common in captivity, there is no evidence to suggest that the same is true of orcas in nature.”
The Orlando-based theme park said in an FAQ that SeaWorld animal care and veterinary teams consulted with external experts, including nephrologists and fungal experts on the infection.
“Candida is an organism that is found in many different animals, including whales and dolphins, both in human care and in the wild,” SeaWorld said. “In this case, the strain was resistant to commonly used medications, making it more difficult to effectively treat.”
But Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, asked two veterinarians with killer whale experience about the fungal infection.
“They say … Candida had not yet been identified in free-ranging orcas but had been identified in free-ranging bottlenose [dolphins],” Rose said Tuesday via email. “Even when found in free-ranging cetaceans, it does not cause illness unless stress is involved (which lowers or weakens the immune response).
“So SeaWorld’s comment that candida is found in wild cetaceans is very misleading.”
Hargrove, who may be called to testify in a Cal-OSHA case against SeaWorld in early January, concluded: “Between something always being wrong with her and always being doped up and drugged, and the miscarriage, she was better off [dead]. She wasn’t thriving. … I just wish for her sake, she would have gone off quicker.”
Both sides agreed on one thing, however.
“We were all saddened by these deaths, especially the animal care team that spent countless hours caring for these animals,” SeaWorld said. “In honor of Unna, we have decided to cancel all the killer whale shows at SeaWorld San Antonio [Monday].”