Killer Whale Custody Battle: Who Really Owns Morgan the Orca?

Dr. Ingrid Visser is the Founder and Principal Scientist of Orca Research Trust, a New Zealand-based group dedicated to protecting orcas and their habitat. A leading expert on killer whales, she is a key figure in the international fight to release a wild orca named Morgan, who was recently sent to the Loro Parque amusement park in the Canary Islands.

I wrote extensively about Morgan’s new location in my book Death at SeaWorld. Loro Parque’s orcas are owned by SeaWorld but are in Spain on a long-term “breeding loan.”

It’s not clear if SeaWorld now owns Morgan, as well.

Some of Morgan’s tank mates have been involved in serious acts of aggression, not only with each other, but with humans. In 2006 Tekoa, son of the notorious Tilikum, brutally attacked trainer Claudia Vollhardt, leaving her with a punctured lung and a forearm fractured in three places. Four years later, Keto, son of the original “Baby Shamu,” Kalina, rammed and killed trainer Alexis Martinez on Christmas Eve 2009.

I recently caught up with Dr. Visser about her efforts to get Morgan out of Spain.

MORE -- EXCLUSIVE: SeaWorld Appeals Ruling in Trainer's Death as Eyewitness Interviews Are Released

TakePart: Just who is Morgan and where does she come from?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: Morgan is a young female orca, who was captured off the coast of the Netherlands in June 2010. She was alone, dehydrated and emaciated. From DNA and analysis of her calls, it was established that she was originally from Norway.

TakePart: Why was she taken to a Dutch aquarium, instead of being released?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: She was still free-swimming when she was taken from the ocean. She was captured by the Dolfinarium Harderwijk, a commercial entertainment park. They had a permit to help stranded porpoises and asked for special permission to remove Morgan for rehabilitation and release. Unfortunately, although they rehabilitated her medically, they did not provide for her physically or mentally as she was kept in a tank that was abysmally small and too shallow (see photo below). She was not provided any appropriate mental stimulation. This resulted in her developing what are termed stereotypical (abnormal and repetitive) behaviours, such as chewing on the concrete. But most importantly, it is now clear that they never intended to release her, as they encouraged her to learn tricks, put her on public display and never fed her live fish. Obviously they never released her. Rather, they sent her another entertainment park, this one in Spain.

 Before she was transferred to Spain, Morgan was held in this tiny, depthless tank in the Netherlands. (Photo: Courtesy Dr. Ingrid Visser)

TakePart: How long was she in Holland, and why?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: She was kept in that tiny tank from June 2010 until November 2011—17 months. The Free Morgan Foundation, formed specifically to try and return her to her native waters of Norway, proposed that Morgan be moved to a natural sea-water pen whilst legal proceeding were conducted as to what would happen to her.

TakePart: What legal measures were taken to secure her release?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: So far Morgan’s case has involved three hearings, the first of which clearly called in to question the motivation of the Dolfinarium Harderwijk and their methods and also blocked their attempt at exporting Morgan to Spain.  The second saw Morgan heading to Spain. The third, which was held on November 1, 2012 was termed a ‘merits case’ and looked at Morgan’s case in depth, and will assess if the right decision was made to send her to Spain. The verdict for this will be announced on December 13 in Amsterdam. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

TakePart: Who owns Morgan and why was she sent to Spain?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: Given that she is a wild animal from Norway, it can be argued that if anyone owns her, it is the Norwegian people. She was sent to an entertainment park in Spain, called Loro Parque, under extreme protest from many people, because some argued that she needed to socialize with other orcas. The Free Morgan Foundation objected strongly to this location for various reasons.

 A close-up of damange to Morgan's rostrum. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Ingrid Visser)

TakePart: What is wrong with her staying at Loro Parque?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: The orca group which is held at Loro Parque is comprised completely of orcas which are all captive bred (two were born at Loro Parque, the rest at SeaWorld in the USA). They are a totally dysfunctional group. The orcas have attacked their trainers on multiple occasions (and in one instance a trainer was killed). The orcas there constantly attack one another, with the sub-adult male, Tekoha being covered in bite marks from the other orcas (in fact he is the most badly bitten orca in the captive industry). 

Loro Parque has two calves which were born there, which they claim is a sign that all is good at the park. However, this is far from the truth. The mother of these calves, Kohana, was bred at the unnatural age of seven years old (typically, in the wild orca don’t breed until they are around 12 to 14 years of age). Kohana has attacked both calves to the point where the calves have had to be removed from her and hand reared, creating more dysfunction in the group. 

Since her transfer, Morgan has accumulated over 650 bite marks and over 100 attacks were observed. Some were so violent that Morgan was physically lifted out of the water by the force of the ramming. Loro Parque is now trying to breed Morgan, even though she is underage. She is sexually harassed by the adult male who fathered the two calves. The captivity industry desperately needs a calf from Morgan in order to get new blood into their severely inbred population. This is the real reason they are keeping Morgan.

The stress that Morgan is enduring has resulted in an alarming escalation of stereotypic behaviours and the concrete biting is so bad now that she has worn more than a third off the top of her front teeth in just 19 weeks. Loro Parque has chosen to ignore these issues.

TakePart: Are you and others still trying to win her release? How would that work?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: The Free Morgan Foundation is still trying to win Morgan’s release. The idea of returning her to her native waters is not a case of just dumping her in the ocean, but rather a careful plan of rehabilitation and gradual return.  The plan is based on that used for Springer, a young orca with remarkable parallels to Morgan. Springer was successfully returned to her family and has been back with them for more than 10 years now.

TakePart: What do you make of Loro Parque’s recent claims that Morgan is hearing impaired and may be totally deaf?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: It is not possible to ascertain if Loro Parque’s claims are just another hyped up media ploy released just before the Judges make their decision on Morgan’s fate. Tellingly, Loro Parque did not do the tests before the court hearing of November 1. Now that Loro Parque has conducted the tests, it has not released results to allow scientists to critically assess the claim. And, again, telling, it did not invite someone from the Free Morgan Foundation to observe the tests. Loro Parque’s comments on its blog, that Morgan’s hearing “could be very severe and even absolute”(my emphasis added) appear to be there more to cast doubt on her suitability for release, than to confirm what they claim. 

Questions should be raised as to how this hearing impairment, if true, occurred. Morgan was at least three years old and possibly even five years old when she was captured and appeared to respond to the whistles used by the trainers. The Dolfinarium Harderwijk had given Morgan a “clean bill of health.” But certain medications administered by aquariums to whales and dolphins kept in captivity are known to cause deafness. Despite repeated attempts to obtain Morgan’s medical records, they remain undisclosed.

TakePart: Orcas hunt with sound waves (echolocation). If Morgan is deaf, wouldn’t that make it impossible for her to survive in the ocean?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: There is scientific evidence that dolphins can survive in the wild even if deaf and mute. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Morgan could survive in the ocean. Regardless if Morgan is deaf or not, the logical option is to start with removing her from the abysmal conditions she is being subjected to. We would house Morgan in a natural sea-pen in the waters of Norway. The site we have chosen, Stø, is known to be an area where her extended family visits. Morgan would then be carefully rehabilitated (including restoring her body condition). Then, following tests of our own, we would establish just how efficient Morgan is with her echolocation and retrain her to hunt live fish. If she could not hunt, chances are that other orcas would help her, as has been found for Stumpy, an orca who has physical disabilities, yet is provided for by others. We would provide her with permanent care, if necessary, yet allow her to be out in the ocean, rather than in a concrete tank, subjected to attacks from other orcas, being forced to breed for profit and having to perform tricks for the park owner to make money.

TakePart: What would you like to see happen next, and what can members of the public do to take part?

Dr. Ingrid Visser: There is only one solution for Morgan, and that is for her to be removed from Loro Parque. If not removed, she will face certain death. Ultimately she should be returned to her native waters. Members of the public can certainly help. The Free Morgan Foundation is going to continue to fight for Morgan and we intend to take that battle to the courts in Spain. These things cost money, so donations for Morgan are always helpful. Even a few dollars will make a difference. Additionally, we are asking people to sign the petition for Morgan’s release, as this will be presented to the European Parliament. Spreading the word is important: the Free Morgan Foundation is on facebook as well as Twitter (@free_morgan).

Do you think Morgan should be freed? If so, tell us in the COMMENTS below.

Related Stories on TakePart:

Op-Ed: SeaWorld's Convoluted Logic on Taiji's Dolphin Slaughter

Shouka, The World's Loneliest Whale: Send This Orca Back to France

Judge Says: SeaWorld Must Protect Trainers From Killer Whales

David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press.