Monday, January 29, 2018

Phototoxicity and is the Hybrid SeaWorld Orca Malia Dying?

Malia is a female hybrid killer whale born at SeaWorld of Florida on 12 March 2007. Her mother was Taima, a half-transient & half N. Atlantic mix & her father was Tilikum, a wild-captured Icelandic male. 

Aside: Contrary to conservation claims by the industry, hybrid orcas, bred exclusively for shows, have no conservation value. They could, however, live more meaningful lives if given access to wild fish & kelp, the tides, ocean sounds, a lot more space, & medical care in an open ocean sea pen. More on that, here

As posted on Instagram: 

Recent photographs show that Malia's skin appears diseased, likely a phototoxic reaction, at least in part, due to medication. One image, not available to publish, shows a large area of sloughed off skin encompassing most of her (white) ventral surface. Note that phototoxic reactions are typically "dose dependent." This suggests that whatever Malia is being treated for has developed some resistance & thus the medication dosage has been sufficiently increased to produce visible skin lesions.

Here's a peer-reviewed article from "Pediatric Dermatology" on dose dependent skin reactions in humans.

The "Heart Sign": An Early Indicator of Dose-Dependent Doxycycline-Induced Phototoxicity.

Phototoxicity tends to attack areas that lack pigmentation, the "white skin" of a killer whale, or areas without hair in other mammals like humans. For more on that see the Merck Veterinary Manual piece at the end of this. 

A drug induced photosensitivity reaction 
From our direct experiences & morning med sessions with Malia's parents & grandparents, Taima, Tilikum, Gudrun, & Kanduke, all deceased, we confirm that captive killer whales are medicated regularly, usually for stubborn infections including from broken & bored out teeth, and also for stress ulcers. Antibiotics & Tagamet were the main drugs we dished out regularly at SeaWorld of Orlando. Sometimes medications like Valium are used to calm the whales. And corticosteroids are used to treat breathing problems, inflammatory conditions & to increase a whale's appetite after they've "slowed down" or stopped eating. 

In a recent conversation with John Hargrove, former SW trainer at the Texas & California parks, he recalled administering Dexamethasone to whales. Indications for it and side effects can be found here. Like antibiotics, corticosteroids can suppress the immune system in mammals. That is why they are used in human recipients of organ transplants, so the body is less likely to reject a donor organ (i.e. the immune response is lowered). 

Malia's teeth, seen in the image below, are worn & drilled out with bore holes. There's a high probability she is on antibiotics, chronically, because of  poor oral health & complications from it. Open bore holes, a pathway for bacteria to enter the bloodstream, can lead to pulmonary infections, endocarditis and kidney disease. While SeaWorld typically reports that their whales die from pneumonia, we suspect most of these pulmonary infections are secondary infections from poor dentition including broken teeth & weak immunity. 

Click the image to expand 

Of most concern is that Malia's skin lesions resemble ones that appeared on Kasatka who recently died. This suggests Malia is being given  similar medications as Kasatka was and at sufficient dosage to trigger photosensitivity. 

The matriarch was euthanized at SeaWorld of California on 15 August 2017 after a long battle with "pneumonia."  A lawsuit seeks to discover more medical details surrounding her condition & the circumstances leading to her death. Unlike children who can stay inside or wear a hat after being prescribed Tetracycline, for example, the whales at SeaWorld have nowhere to run from UV exposure, especially in Orlando & San Diego. 

Photo of Kasatka from Elizabeth, months prior to her death (SeaWorld of California) 

Kasatka, seen with skin lesions above & below, is famously known for thrashing SeaWorld trainer Ken Peters in 2006 as well as her role in the #Blackfish documentary.

Left, note the more advanced cutaneous lesions as she neared death, appearing similar to an end-stage AIDs patient. One unconfirmed report is that SeaWorld stopped the phototoxic drug in Kasatka's case and her skin began to improve, but without the medication, she crashed. 

In memoriam, the unedited uncut version of Kasatka with trainer Ken Peters during a live public performance, courtesy of "Death at SeaWorld" author David Kirby: 


So, is Malia dying? 

The lesions tell us only that she is medicated and make it difficult to answer that question. We don't know what she is being treated for nor the current state of her immune system. For SeaWorld to use a drug that causes striking visual changes (i.e. "bad PR") one can presume that Malia is being treated for something fairly serious. Regarding immunity, she is younger than Kasatka was and stronger. We also know that degraded skin, like broken teeth, offers pathways for more aggressive pathogens to enter her body. Thus a phototoxic lesion can become a host for a secondary bacterial or fungal infection, and the cycle continues leading to more or different meds. 

What could SeaWorld do? 

An open "science-based" company, as SeaWorld likes to imagine & portray itself would share data, talk to outside researchers & discuss what Malia is being treated for and what drugs the animal care staff are using to combat her illness. They would publish research on it; perhaps a peer-reviewed journal article regarding phototoxicty in captive killer whales
I suspect we'll never get that information, related:  

SeaWorld is actively battling attempts from attorneys to see its orca medical records in the context of a current class action lawsuit & Federal investigation. For more on the teeth damage captive orcas sustain, John Jett, Ingrid Visser, et al: 

So, what can we deduce from the limited information we have?

Malia is being treated with a medication that is causing phototoxic skin lesions which expose her to more dangerous pathogens. The photosensitivity is amplified by a shallow water column, treated-water that doesn't block UV-radiation, and general exposure. In contrast, wild orcas spend 80-90% of their lives submerged and in darker water & with healthier teeth & stronger immunity. Darker, particulate-filled ocean water protects their skin and eyes, unlike captives who have both skin & eye issues. 

We also know that over time chronic antibiotic & steroid use & the stress of captivity leads to weakened immunity and sometimes immune systems collapse, as seen with Kasatka & Tilikum. 

An AV presentation of Keto & Tilikum express the stress of orca captivity is here: 

Historically, at SeaWorld, weakened immunity has been observed & described in several orcas like Kanduke (1990, cause of death St Louis Virus Encephalitis) and Taku (2007, cause of death West Nile virus) who both died from infections that are not typically fatal (in healthy subjects). 

Over half of SeaWorld's orcas end up dying from infections. This is likely due to compromised immune systems being unable to fight off various pathogens that enter the body via damaged teeth or skin.  

The bottom line is that Malia will live a shortened impoverished life with broken teeth at SeaWorld, being chronically medicated and with no where to run from aggression & small concrete pools that limit exercise & play. 

Based on the longevity & survival data we already have, Malia will likely die before the age of 20, or sooner if she loses the battle she is currently fighting. Lastly, if she lives, she stands the chance of being shipped from Orlando to China. SeaWorld's primary stock holder is the Zhonghong Group which has control of the company's board of directors, now. Yoshikazu Maruyama, of Zhonghong is SeaWorld's Chairperson of the Board of the Directors. Yongli Wang, also from Zhonghong, is a "director" on the board.

Some of us suspect that is why SeaWorld is fighting the Florida Orca Protection Act (HB 1305) with such vigor. They may be planning to ship orcas to China.

For more information on phototoxicity and photosensitivity the Merck Veterinary Manual has been copied below. 


Video attributable to the Center for Whale Research 
Jeffrey Ventre MD is a board certified medical doctor practicing in Washington state. He is a former SeaWorld trainer, 1987-1995, working at all three animal show areas including two stints at Shamu Stadium. His favorite orca was Taima. In 1995 JV was invited by Dr Astrid Van Ginneken to participate in "Orca Survey," an ongoing photo-identification study of the Southern Resident killer whales. His first encounters with wild whales, June 1996, can be seen here, and combined with captive observations radically altered his perspective on places like SeaWorld, Loro Parque, Marineland & Miami SeaQuarium. Along with John Jett Phd, Carol Ray MA CCC SLP, & Samantha Berg,M.Ac., Dipl.Ac. he is a part of "Voice of the Orcas," a group of former SeaWorld trainers who aim to pull back the curtain on captivity, also along with John Hargrove, author of Beneath the Surface, Dean Gomersall & many other pod members. VOTO hosts regular Superpod Events on San Juan Island that are open to the public. In 2018 the dates are 16-20 July 


Overview of Photosensitization from the Merck Veterinary Manual 

By George M. Barrington, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University

Photosensitization occurs when skin (especially areas exposed to light and lacking significant protective hair, wool, or pigmentation (note that it impacts mostly the white areas of the captive orcas) becomes more susceptible to ultraviolet light because of the presence of photodynamic agents. Photosensitization differs from sunburn and photodermatitis, because both of these conditions result in pathologic skin changes without the presence of a photodynamic agent

In photosensitization, unstable, high-energy molecules are formed when photons react with a photodynamic agent. These high-energy molecules initiate reactions with substrate molecules of the skin, causing the release of free radicals that in turn result in increased permeability of outer cell and lysosomal membranes. Damage to outer cell membranes allows for leakage of cellular potassium and cytoplasmic extrusion. Lysosomal membrane damage releases lytic enzymes into the cell. This can lead to skin ulceration, necrosis, and edema. The time interval between exposure to the photodynamic agent and the onset of clinical signs depends on the type of agent, its dose, and the exposure to sunlight.

Photosensitization is typically classified according to the source of the photodynamic agent. These categories include primary (type I) photosensitivity, aberrant endogenous pigment synthesis (type II) photosensitivity, and hepatogenous (secondary, type III) photosensitivity. A fourth category termed idiopathic (type IV) photosensitivity has been described.

A wide range of chemicals, including some that are fungal and bacterial in origin, may act as photosensitizing agents. However, most compounds that are important causes of photosensitivity in veterinary medicine are plant-derived. Photosensitization occurs worldwide and can affect any species but is most commonly seen in cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.


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