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Orca experts debate cause, seriousness of injury to SeaWorld San Diego's Nakai

Animal experts and concerned members of the public are still searching for clues this afternoon regarding the origin and seriousness of an injury suffered by Nakai, one of SeaWorld San Diego’s captive orcas, or “killer whales.”

So far, the only statement released by SeaWorld indicates that Nakai was injured during a September 20 show, when a chunk of flesh about the size of a dinner plate was carved from his lower mandible, or jaw area, exposing a wide swath of flesh and bone. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran photos taken by a park visitor this morning of the wound apparently resulting from an incident involving an altercation between Nakai and two of the park’s other orcas, Keet and Ike.

“It is believed Nakai’s injury occurred when he came in contact with a portion of the pool environment. He was quickly treated by park veterinarians. Nakai is currently receiving antibiotics and the veterinarians are pleased with the healing progress of his wound. He is swimming comfortably and interacting with the other killer whales at the Shamu Stadium pool complex,” reads part of the statement released by SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz.

The photos, taken a week later, seem to suggest otherwise. Former Outside Magazine writer Tim Zimmerman, who has extensive research experience on orcas in captivity, fears the size of the open wound leaves a large risk for infection, possibly fatal.

David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, says that if the wound had been caused by the orcas’ enclosure as SeaWorld suggests, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Many cases have been documented of the whales cutting or scraping themselves on the metal edges of their pens, though never to such an extent. Ike recently sustained a “nasty gash under his mouth,” believed to be caused by a tank railing.

“It is hard to understand, however, exactly what part of the tank at Shamu Stadium could have sliced such a large, clean, portion of flesh deep out of Nakai’s chin,” Kirby says. “SeaWorld may try to blame the metal safety railings it installed after Tilikum killed Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. But it doesn’t make sense that those bars, and the small bolts they contain, could have scalloped out such a large piece of flesh,” lending credibility to the theory Nakai may have been bitten by another whale.

Also debatable is whether Nakai received the rapid treatment SeaWorld’s release implies. Zimmerman writes that “onstage trainers, not realizing how badly injured he was, continued the show with the other whales. It was only when they called Nakai over later that night that they realized he was seriously hurt.”

“The truth is, SeaWorld simply does not have a felicitous explanation—it was either the tank, or the tank-mates that wounded poor Nakai,” Kirby concludes.

In their natural habitat, which Kirby’s book examines at length, orcas form tight-knit matriarchal communities, in which the whales are socialized and, males particularly, spend many decades in the company of the same family into which they are born.

The males involved in last week’s altercation, however were born in captivity, bred from family lines hailing from different ecotypes and oceans, and had no traditional family structure under which to socialize and learn proper behaviors, a major point made by Kirby and others who advocate against captive breeding or holding orcas captive for display purposes at all. The whales also were relatively unfamiliar with one another: while Nakai was born in San Diego (and was the first successful birth via artificial insemination in the SeaWorld chain of theme parks), Keet and Ike arrived in San Diego only this year, transferring from SeaWorld’s San Antonio location and Marineland in Ontario, Canada, respectively.

The Reader will continue seeking updates on Nakai’s condition and will post as more information becomes available.

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Animal experts and concerned members of the public are still searching for clues this afternoon regarding the origin and seriousness of an injury suffered by Nakai, one of SeaWorld San Diego’s captive orcas, or “killer whales.”

So far, the only statement released by SeaWorld indicates that Nakai was injured during a September 20 show, when a chunk of flesh about the size of a dinner plate was carved from his lower mandible, or jaw area, exposing a wide swath of flesh and bone. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran photos taken by a park visitor this morning of the wound apparently resulting from an incident involving an altercation between Nakai and two of the park’s other orcas, Keet and Ike.

“It is believed Nakai’s injury occurred when he came in contact with a portion of the pool environment. He was quickly treated by park veterinarians. Nakai is currently receiving antibiotics and the veterinarians are pleased with the healing progress of his wound. He is swimming comfortably and interacting with the other killer whales at the Shamu Stadium pool complex,” reads part of the statement released by SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz.

The photos, taken a week later, seem to suggest otherwise. Former Outside Magazine writer Tim Zimmerman, who has extensive research experience on orcas in captivity, fears the size of the open wound leaves a large risk for infection, possibly fatal.

David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, says that if the wound had been caused by the orcas’ enclosure as SeaWorld suggests, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Many cases have been documented of the whales cutting or scraping themselves on the metal edges of their pens, though never to such an extent. Ike recently sustained a “nasty gash under his mouth,” believed to be caused by a tank railing.

“It is hard to understand, however, exactly what part of the tank at Shamu Stadium could have sliced such a large, clean, portion of flesh deep out of Nakai’s chin,” Kirby says. “SeaWorld may try to blame the metal safety railings it installed after Tilikum killed Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. But it doesn’t make sense that those bars, and the small bolts they contain, could have scalloped out such a large piece of flesh,” lending credibility to the theory Nakai may have been bitten by another whale.

Also debatable is whether Nakai received the rapid treatment SeaWorld’s release implies. Zimmerman writes that “onstage trainers, not realizing how badly injured he was, continued the show with the other whales. It was only when they called Nakai over later that night that they realized he was seriously hurt.”

“The truth is, SeaWorld simply does not have a felicitous explanation—it was either the tank, or the tank-mates that wounded poor Nakai,” Kirby concludes.

In their natural habitat, which Kirby’s book examines at length, orcas form tight-knit matriarchal communities, in which the whales are socialized and, males particularly, spend many decades in the company of the same family into which they are born.

The males involved in last week’s altercation, however were born in captivity, bred from family lines hailing from different ecotypes and oceans, and had no traditional family structure under which to socialize and learn proper behaviors, a major point made by Kirby and others who advocate against captive breeding or holding orcas captive for display purposes at all. The whales also were relatively unfamiliar with one another: while Nakai was born in San Diego (and was the first successful birth via artificial insemination in the SeaWorld chain of theme parks), Keet and Ike arrived in San Diego only this year, transferring from SeaWorld’s San Antonio location and Marineland in Ontario, Canada, respectively.

The Reader will continue seeking updates on Nakai’s condition and will post as more information becomes available.

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