MYSTIC, Conn. (WPRI) — Mystic Aquarium was flagged for three “critical violations” of the Animal Welfare Act during an inspection last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA inspected the aquarium’s beluga whale exhibit last September following the death of 5-year-old Havok. The whale was one of five captive-born belugas that were transported to Connecticut from an overcrowded aquarium in Ontario last summer.
The inspection report states that the whale was on 24-hour watch because of ongoing health issues, and eight hours prior to his death was in extreme discomfort and distress.
Havok, according to the inspection report, was rolling frequently, had “gaspy” respirations, had water coming from his blowhole and was bleeding from an open wound on his snout.
While the staff members monitoring the whale’s condition did record the whale’s symptoms, the inspection report claims they did not alert the attending veterinarian until after he had died.
“The facility failed to provide adequate veterinary care by not using appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat diseases during Havok’s last eight hours,” the report concludes.
Another violation cited in the inspection report details an incident in which Havok, who had poor eyesight, collided with one of the gates that separates the aquarium’s three pools.
The collision occurred after a visitor dropped a foreign object into the pool, according to the inspection report.
The other whales in the exhibit were being monitored by handlers as aquarium staff removed the object, but Havok was not, according to the inspection report. That’s when he swam straight into the gate, reopening an existing wound on his snout and creating a new one on his left mandible, among other traumatic injuries.
“Foreign objects falling into exhibits from members of the public is an anticipated occurrence,” the inspection report states. “The handling of the whales during the response to the foreign object falling into the pool was not done as carefully as possible to ensure the safety of all the animals, including Havok, who had known vision impairment, a history of swimming into habitat walls, and a disposition for being ‘spooked.'”
The conditions of the pools were also of concern. The inspection report states that Havok injured himself several times while bumping into objects, including the habitat walls themselves.
“Indoor and outdoor housing facilities for marine mammals must be structurally sound and must be maintained in good repair to protect the animals from injury,” the inspection report reads.
Other issues listed in the inspection report include poor water quality and a lack of adequate shelter in the exhibit to protect the whales from direct sunlight. Both of these concerns were immediately addressed by the aquarium following Havok’s death.
Since the initial inspection, a second whale imported from Canada has died and a third remains in intensive care.
In a statement, Mystic Aquarium said the third whale’s condition has been improving, and veterinarians are optimistic that she will make a full recovery.
The aquarium also said it has addressed all of the concerns in the initial inspection report, adding that a new report released Wednesday did not cite any additional concerns from the USDA.
“Mystic Aquarium appreciates USDA’s vigilance and aligns with the welfare of all animals being of utmost importance,” the aquarium said.
The Animal Welfare Institute unsuccessfully attempted to stop the whales from being transported to Mystic Aquarium, calling it an “unprecedented import request.”
The nonprofit organization is now calling upon the federal agencies in charge of the the whales during their transport “to strengthen the monitoring of animal health during wildlife border crossings.”
“Something went terribly wrong with this transport,” Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute said in a statement. “Procedures at the border must be strengthened. When live animals come into the United States and their research permit is predicated on all animals being healthy, every effort must be made to ensure the animals are indeed healthy.”
Rose said she was appalled by the violations listed in the initial inspection report, adding that it clearly documents “failures in basic common sense.”
“Mystic rushed this transport, rather than wait to ensure the whales were fully healthy,” she said.
The aquarium, however, assured that it would never import whales that have been deemed unhealthy.
“Mystic Aquarium identified what we thought were healthy animals, and this was underscored by the Canadian veterinarian signing the health certificates when she determined they were suitable to travel,” the aquarium added.