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Unna succumbs to illness at SeaWorld Texas

Unna succumbs to illness at SeaWorld Texas

Unna receives treatment from SeaWorld. Image: Copyright SeaWorld.com

Monday afternoon, SeaWorld announced the passing of Unna, an 18-year-old captive-born orca housed at SeaWorld Texas. Just a couple of weeks shy of her 19th birthday, the park wrote that Unna had died due to a "resistant strain of a fungus called Candida."

The public first learned of Unna's illness last September. "Veterinarians and trainers at SeaWorld San Antonio," the park said, "are giving around-the-clock attention and medical care to Unna, a female killer whale with suspected cystitis caused by a fungal infection." One month later, a new treatment method was announced "after initial treatments including several anti-fungal medications did not produce significant clinical improvement."

A further update last October, placed Unna in intensive care. While the "team is cautiously optimistic that she is on the road to recovery," SeaWorld explained, "she remains under 24/7 care in serious condition." A final, brief update on December 8th, revealed, "some indication that the treatment may be having a positive effect."

But sadly, on Monday, via a company press release, Unna's death was announced. She was the third cetacean to die at the San Antonio park since July.

Sired by Tilikum, Unna was born Dec. 27, 1996, and was Katina's fourth calf. Her three siblings before her -- Kalina, Katerina and Taku, all preceded her in death.

Born at SeaWorld Orlando, Unna would spend six years with Katina before she was transferred to SeaWorld San Antonio.  Katina remained behind in Orlando.  

By all accounts, Unna was an accommodating whale for trainers but not problem free. In her SeaWorld orca profile published by The Orca Project, the park noted that she could sometimes be observed "opening her mouth slightly on various foot push behaviors."

Other observations, included:

  • A tendency to discriminate against trainers who didn't do waterwork with her. This behavior escalated according to the report after Unna began ovulating
  • Tooth damage that required drilling
  • A noted pregnancy resulting in a miscarriage in 2005 which left Unna's health compromised. Unna did not carry the calf to full-term and, SeaWorld said, she "has been on medication most of the time since", writes SeaWorld

This is something former senior SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove confirmed. Hargrove, who said he was saddened to learn of Unna's death, said that the orca had a "heart of gold." In all the years he worked with Unna at SeaWorld of Texas, he added, she never came off medications. "We kept her separated from the males every time she cycled," Hargrove explained, "ironic given that SeaWorld is now accusing sea sanctuary proponents of wanting to do the same."

According to her profile, when in Texas, Unna suffered from separation issues and an aversion to "major environmental changes." Something that Voice of the Orcas addressed back in September.

Voice of the Orcas  or VOTO, was formed by four former SeaWorld trainers: Dr. Jeff Ventre, Dr. John Jett, Carol Ray and Samantha Berg. VOTO called SeaWorld's early announcement of Unna's ill-health, "proactive damage control", and believe that the "condition with Unna is a hallmark manifestation of the physiological stresses associated with captivity at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment."

To support their statement, VOTO cited the following from the "Merck Manual of Veterinary Medicine" on 'Fungal Infections in Captives':

Captive marine mammals seem particularly prone to fungal infections (see Fungal Infections). Most appear to be secondary to stress, environmental compromise, or other infectious disease.
— VOTO citation from "Merck Manual of Veterinary Medicine"

According to the manual, Candida, the fungus that Unna suffered with is treatable but as SeaWorld noted, this particular strain was proving resistant to treatment. An issue of concern for humans too, writes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

Some fungi no longer respond to the antifungal medications that are designed to cure them. This emerging phenomenon is known as antifungal resistance, and it’s primarily a concern for invasive infections with the fungus Candida.
— CDC.gov

The CDC continues: 

The fungus Candida is the most common cause of healthcare-associated bloodstream infections in the United States. Some types of Candida are becoming increasingly resistant to first-line and second-line antifungal medications, namely, fluconazole and echinocandins (anidulafungin, caspofungin, and micafungin)

An early 1975 study by Sweeney & Ridgeway discussed common diseases of small cetaceans, one of which, was Candida.

Image: Screenshot American Medical Veterinary Association/Researchgate.com

The study is obviously dated, but Candida was noted "as an agent of disease" in debilitated cetaceans and has impacted another orca through its environment.

The manual's suggestion then that captive marine mammals are prone to fungal infections secondary to stress and other environmental factors makes VOTO's assessment more than plausible. Other testimony has suggested further stressors placed on Unna. In August 2013 for example, former SeaWorld trainer Bridgette Pirtle told WUFT:

Unna, one of the whales at Seaworld San Antonio, lost three calves during her time there, one of them in the middle of a show. “One show a trainer was working with Unna in the slide out and something fell out of her. After the show ... they dove into the pool and picked up the pieces of a calf fetus.
— WUFT Media

This was disputed by a current marine mammal training expert who asked to remain anonymous, but told me:

I have only heard of Unna’s one miscarriage as stated by Seaworld. I would’ve heard about the others if there were any after her miscarriage. I know they never wanted her to get pregnant because of that. Do you really think Seaworld would continue a show when she was having a miscarriage? The whale would not even have come under control to participate in a show if she was in labor, let alone be out during a show. All the births I have witnessed, I’ve never seen a whale want to interact with people during labor. I can tell you 100% that statement is a bunch of shit.

As for candida, although I have never had any experience with it. I’m sure you could attribute it to a lot of things, but if it has been seen in wild dolphins you can’t really pin it solely on captivity. It sounds like SeaWorld tried everything and then some, to get her better. That sucks. She was a really good whale.

In yet another article published by Tim Zimmermann via The Dodo, Hargrove spoke of Unna's tendency for peeling paint off the walls of the pool:

Unna, was obsessed with picking at the paint on the bottom of the show pool, according to Hargrove, and would go at it so hard her rostrum would get torn up. “Unna used to destroy her face. Sometimes it would get so bad she wasn’t allowed in the front pool until her face healed,” he says. “Then we would let her out and try to prevent it. Sometimes she would leave it but eventually her focus would always go back to it. And once her focus went back to it, it was an obsession, and she would do it until she injured herself.
— The Dodo

Unna definitely died young. Her mother Katina, captured from Icelandic waters in 1978, is still alive and is an estimated  40 years old. Survivorship rates versus longevity were discussed  in a panel discussion held in New Zealand in 2013, as part of the 20th biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. Dr. Doug DeMaster suggested that the various  ways of estimating survival rates for both captive and wild killer whales show that captured and  captive born individuals have, in fact, higher mortality rates.

DeMaster also noted significant improvement in these rates in prior decades but acknowledged that no improvement had occurred since the 80s.

According to data on SeaWorld whales at Ceta-Base.org, statistics indicate that if stillborn calves are included, then the park's whales average just 8.1 years in captivity. However, if you exclude calves under 6 months old, the average increases to 12 years. As DeMaster noted, though, although directly related to annual survivorship, “longevity is statistically challenging”. This makes it doubly difficult for the public to grasp. 

Hargrove however, is adamant that SeaWorld continues to lie to the public when they say their orcas are thriving. "What happened to Unna," he said, "and how she lived and died -- too young, is the real truth."


Further reading: Stoskopf, Michael K. DVM, Ph.D., DACZM; The Merck Veterinary Manual, "Mycotic Diseases of Marine Mammals." October 2015. 

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