The ethics of caring for the orca Toa – Expert Reaction

An intensive search for the pod of the stranded baby orca – named Toa – has continued daily for the last week-and-a-half.

The young orca calf has been cared for around-the-clock by Department of Conservation (DOC) staff and volunteers since becoming separated from his mother at Plimmerton, north of Wellington, on Sunday 11 July. It’s reported the cost to taxpayers of looking after Toa is estimated at about $10,000 so far, not accounting for DOC staffing costs.

The SMC asked experts to comment on ethical considerations in this evolving situation.

Dr Karen Stockin, Professor in Marine Biology and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Massey University, comments:

“The situation for Toa was always very fragile from the moment he became separated from his pod. With every day that has passed, his circumstance has become more complex and concerning.

“At less than three months old (body length 2.15m), his foetal folds and non-erupted teeth demonstrate his true infancy. We need to keep this in mind when we discuss Toa’s fate and welfare since he is a new-born, a mammal totally dependent upon his mother for nutrition and his pod for the development of critical life skills. While excellent veterinary care has enabled Toa’s health to stabilise in the interim, the question must be asked, how long can he remain stable in the current situation? Furthermore, what welfare costs can we ethically justify in the context of his diminishing long-term prognosis?

“Understandably, the New Zealand public, caregivers and supporters focus efforts on possible pod reunification for Toa. Finding his natal pod has proven a huge challenge, but that of course is only part of the problem. There are no guarantees that even if Toa’s natal pod could be located, and a safe translocation were possible, that Toa himself would be accepted or even survive the process. Balancing the welfare needs of Toa throughout all decision making is an unenviable task. What should remain at the forefront of our actions is his immediate welfare and long-term chance of survival.

“Internationally-recognised practice for separated cetaceans this young is either lifelong human care or euthanasia. Notably, this is based on clear scientific rationale around welfare and survival outcomes. New Zealand has no captive or rehabilitation facility that could support Toa. Of course, we all crave a Disney happy ending, but what matters most here is not our understandable human sentiment and emotion, but notably the viability and welfare of Toa.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Mike King, Senior Lecturer, The Bioethics Centre, University of Otago

“The stranding of an orca such as Toa raises many issues. Why intervene in this case, when the lives and welfare of wild animals are usually regarded as their own business? Should we find out how to improve the welfare of wild animals and more routinely intervene in their lives if we have reason to believe we can benefit them? We will set these aside to focus on this one case, although it will be useful to reflect in time on what our treatment of Toa might mean for our ethical obligations toward wild animals generally.

“Toa faced a painful death if not helped. Humane killing, by a veterinarian and DOC, could have limited and ended that pain, but premature death, even if painless, is also bad for Toa, to the extent that it would deprive him of a good life that he might otherwise lead. Toa’s pod and his mother, presumably within the pod, will likely also be distressed, given the strong maternal and social bonds they are capable of.

“The help provided by Orca Research Trust/Whale Rescue Trust, local iwi Ngāti Toa Rangatira, and the local community, offers the possibility of a better outcome. However, it is uncertain quite what life Toa might lead as a result of this help. Everyone involved is devoting huge effort to maximising the chance of a good life for Toa, ideally reunited with his pod.

“But there is a lot of uncertainty about how successful this may be, and what options may need to be explored if it is unsuccessful. Throughout, it has been, and continues to be, a time-critical situation. This means that those involved cannot usually spend a lot of time enumerating options, assessing their likelihood of success, and weighing the different reasons for and against. They must make decisions under conditions of uncertainty by necessity. There will likely continue to be difficult – and risky – decisions to make, and actions to take. However, as long as decisions are guided primarily by what is best for the welfare of Toa, these risks are likely better than the certain bad outcome that was the only alternative in this case.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Arnja Dale, Chief Scientific Officer, SPCA, comments:

“SPCA is extremely concerned about the welfare of Toa. The young, vulnerable calf has experienced considerable stress and trauma since his stranding on the 11th of July. Body lacerations, being separated from his mother and pod, being tube-fed, regular veterinary assessments, being surrounded by people, and being transported to a pool are all animal welfare compromises. Orca strandings are well-known to be highly emotional situations for rescuers, particularly when young animals are involved.

“While reuniting Toa with his pod would be the best outcome and one we all hope for, if this does not happen very soon, challenging ethical decisions using a robust ethical framework will need to be made by the Department of Conservation, and it is critical that the best welfare outcome for Toa is at the core of all decisions.

“Everyone involved in the rescue and care of Toa – as well as many New Zealanders – are heavily invested in Toa’s plight, but he is too young to survive in the wild alone and animal welfare science has clearly demonstrated that we cannot meet the welfare needs, or provide a good life, for orca in captivity due to their complex social, physical and behavioural needs.

“SPCA understands that this is an incredibly challenging and complex situation for Toa and everyone involved, and urges that the best welfare outcome for Toa is the priority.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Annie Potts, Professor in Human-Animal Studies and Co-Director of the NZ Centre for Human-Animal Studies, University of Canterbury, comments:

“As a Professor of Human-Animal Studies, I often write about the paradoxical ways that people understand and treat different species. This is nowhere more evident than when whale calves are rescued and so much money, time and emotion is invested in their wellbeing and reunion with their mothers and pods.

“This is commendable of course. But at the same time, bobby calves – also infants who miss the mothers they are taken from – are slaughtered within days of birth or confined in veal crates to produce so-called gourmet cuisine. There is no difference between the whale calf and the bovine calf other than human reverence for one and human oppression of the other. Both feel pain and suffer, both want to live, both dearly miss their mothers and wider families. This is a tricky conversation about speciesism that most New Zealanders avoid.

“We call ourselves animal lovers here, but in reality we reserve our love, compassion and empathy for ‘extraordinary species’ like whales which we can celebrate ‘saving’. Most Kiwis forget or dismiss those other calves who are also sentient and intelligent beings – who we actively hurt and kill each day.”

No conflict of interest declared.