Between March 2021 and September 2022 three individuals of Orcinus orca have died at Loro Parque facilities. Since this is a relevant concentration of deaths in a certain period of time for a small group of animals, it is necessary to ascertain wether these events could be related or they were just random independent deaths. This analysis is of utmost importance, as the former could be indicating a problem in the management of the species or even a failure in the health and care protocols.
To avoid any bias, the only way to approach this question is through the scientific evidence obtained in the necropsy examinations made on Skyla, Ula and Kohana. All the necropsies were performed by a team of expert pathologists from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, with an extensive experience in cetacean necropsies (over 600 in the last 20 years). All the necropsies were performed a few hours after the death in the special necropsy room at the University, and the bodies were kept refrigerated to ensure that all the biochemical and biological parameters were unaltered. In this situation we can be confident that the quality of the results obtained with the necropsies is maximum and, as a result, all the conclusions are correct. In every case, after the necropsy report was finished, the cause of death and the full pathological reports were shared with the competent authorities.
Considering the causes of death, the only similarity between the three cases is that the pathologies were acute, evolved in a few hours and were impossible to treat, consequently the three deaths were unavoidable with the actual knowledge of the cetacean veterinary medicine. Skyla and Ula suffered the same acute pathology: intestinal torsion that produced a septicemia. Despite they had the same etiology, the bacteriological cultures did’t show evidences that could lead to a common origin, and both cases seem to be unrelated. According to the scientific literature this pathology seems to be rather prevalent in killer whales, both in the wild and under human care. Considering that Ula was a calve that had to be hand raised, and suffered different health conditions from birth, it seems reasonable to think that there were no other reasons (management or procedures) in the origin of both pathologies.
The first insights of the necropsy performed to Kohana have shown a totally different death cause, most probably related with a heart failure caused by a vascular malformation. In the case of Kohana there were no signs of pathologies in her intestines, and absolutely no signs of intestinal torsion or blockage. Based on this information we can be sure that the pathology that caused Kohana’s death is totally different from the two previous ones, consequently there is no clear indication a common cause between the three deaths. To have the complete picture about the death of Kohana we must wait to have the final pathological report, including analysis and cultures that will take a couple of months. It is unlikely that the final report includes significative changes in the cause of death, but it will add important information on how the health of the animal deteriorated during her life because of the malformation.
Despite that all the evidence is excluding the management of the animals or the veterinary care as potential causes of the three deaths, it will be worth to make an independent evaluation of all the cases by a group of expert veterinarians and pathologists, to see if the actual veterinary knowledge can be improved with new tools that could prevent or at least detect early signs of this acute pathologies in the future. Thanks to the great level of veterinary procedures that Loro Parque has in place, there is an enormous amount of information on blood parameters, cultures, measurements and ultrasound analysis acquired during the last 16 years for every single individual in Orca Ocean. That information could be analyzed to see if it is possible to find early markers for these pathologies. As Loro Parque has stored serum samples from all the animals during all this years, it could be also possible to explore and test new analytical tools that could improve the veterinarian knowledge in cetaceans and prevent similar situations in the future.
Javier Almunia, PhD, Director of Loro Parque Fundación