Friday, April 21, 2006

ENV: Sick Beluga

Hopes high sick beluga gets well soon
Aquarium takes Gasper off exhibit for topflight treatment
By Peggy Mihelich,
CNN

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Each day, thousands of visitors press up against the acrylic glass at the Georgia Aquarium to watch a playful beluga whale named Gasper. Gasper takes center-stage at the viewing window, blowing bubbles and making faces at wide-eyed children who coo and laugh at him and his tank mates -- Nico, Natasha, Maris and Marina.

But for the past week the front of the window has been noticeably empty.

The 17-year-old male beluga whale is being held in a tank next to the main beluga whale exhibit, out of public view, so veterinary staff can attend to his suppressed appetite, raspy breathing and chronic skin disorder.

On Tuesday he showed signs of returning to his normal self. He'd had a good afternoon feeding and was up to his old "bubble trick."

"He's starting to feel better. So we're pleased about that, but cautiously optimistic -- the healing process takes a long time," said Eric Gaglione, the aquarium's husbandry manager, shortly after feeding Gasper.

Gasper has not been especially healthy since arriving at the aquarium in October 2005. He came to Georgia from Mexico underweight and with skin lesions on his fin, tail and body. Gasper and Nico were on display at the LeFeria de Chapultepec amusement park in Mexico City, in a tank surrounded by a rollercoaster.

'Canary of the sea'
Beluga whales are warm-blooded mammals that live in Arctic waters -- swimming among icebergs and ice floes and eating a wide variety of fish. They are called the "canaries of the sea" because of their vocalizing -- in belches, squeaks and whistles.

Estimates put the world's beluga population between 50,000 to 70,000 animals, according to MarineBio.org, an online volunteer organization of marine students and biologists. Belugas are not endangered but overhunting and pollution has reduced their populations -- most notably in Canada's St. Lawrence Estuary.

The average beluga can grow to 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters) and weigh around 3,330 pounds (1,500 kilograms).

Their characteristic white skin, bulbous melon head and playful antics make them a top draw for aquariums.

Seven aquariums across the nation house over 30 belugas, according to the Georgia Aquarium's director of husbandry, Tim Binder.

Belugas are very curious and can be trained to perform simple tricks -- for example, the belugas in Atlanta spin around, tail walk and vocalize when prompted by a whistle or hand gesture.

Belugas often make facial expressions at people -- but it's not clear whether they do this for our amusement or their own.

The staff describes Gasper as playful and easy-going -- a very different disposition from his behavior at the amusement park.

In Mexico, "he did not interact with people at all. He did not show any interest in his caregivers except for at feeding time. Since he's been here, and we've been able to work with him . . . we're seeing him come out of his shell," Binder said.

For Josh Ford, an aquarium docent who conducts informational sessions in front of the beluga exhibit, Gasper is the star of the show.

"No animal connects so personally with children than Gasper," he said.

"Gasper always stays right near the window. He'll occasionally bump the glass with his melon, the big part of his head, right where children are," said Ford. "Kids show a lot of concern for him because they can see from the other whales he's not doing so well."

Mysterious skin condition
Although experts don't know for sure what is causing Gasper's skin to blister, the staff thinks the stress in Mexico of having a rollercoaster pounding overhead may have suppressed his immune system, allowing a pathogen to enter his body.

"Where did he get the lesions? That's the question . . . we're tying to figure out," said Dr. Howard Krum, the aquarium's manager of veterinary services.

For treatment, a special waterproof ointment has had great results. Made from vitamin E and with antibiotic capabilities, "Tricide" was initially developed by the University of Georgia to treat burns.

With regular application "we noticed, early on, rapid healing on his pectoral flipper," Binder said.

Since his arrival in October of 2005, Gasper has packed on more than 200 pounds.

"A beluga whale Gasper's age and size should be consuming around 24,000 to 30,000 calories a day. He's been eating 38,000 to 40,000 calories a day. That's in a effort to overcome the weight deficit when he arrived," Binder explained.

But last week he stopped eating and dropped about 20 pounds.

"We thought at first he just wasn't hungry," he said. But the lack of appetite compounded by his skin condition was reason enough to take him off exhibit for closer observation. A medical checkup detected a possible respiratory problem.

Get well soon
"We started hearing some sounds in his lungs, some raspiness in his breathing and that's something we typically don't hear in animals of this nature. We're not quite sure what it means at this point -- it's not severe but it's there," Binder said.

A two-hour medical exam on Tuesday included a blood test, blowhole swab, lesion treatment, and the use of ultrasound to probe his heart and lungs.

"We got a very clear picture of the heart today, which looked very clean."

Jeff Swanagan, executive director of the Georgia Aquarium, gets daily updates on his condition and is making sure the staff has all the resources they need.

"We've reached out to Mystic, Baltimore, Shedd and SeaWorld, facilities that have beluga whales, to talk to their medical staff to seek their advice," Swanagan said.

Gasper's condition remains guarded and there are no plans as yet to place him back in the main tank.

"We'll want to see Gasper eating a stable diet for a number of days in a row before we put him back on exhibit," Binder said.

Until then, the children have a message for him: Get well soon.

"I had yesterday, a school group present me with a big card with signatures, " Swanagan said. "And they all gathered around me and said a prayer for Gasper."

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