Following news that SeaWorld gave orcas psychoactive drugs to reduce stress induced by captivity, a noted orca scientist tells The Dodo that drug use was particularly dangerous because it administered the drug to a nursing mother, a violation of medical guidelines. 

The incident in question, which was spotted in a court document by PETA, involved a calf, Nalani, who was just 9 days old when she was attacked by two males, Ikaika (born in 2002) and Taku (born in 1993). Taku is the biological father of Nalani; Ikaika had to be tranquilized after he was observed trying to mate with the calf, Nalani. Coincidentally, both Taku and Ikaika’s biological father is Tilikum, the whale at the center of the documentary “Blackfish” -- a film that questioned whether Tilikum should be bred at all, given his history of aggression.

As The Dodo reported, three adult whales -- Katina (Nalani’s mother), Taku and Ikaika -- were put on diazepam, a drug once marketed as valium that is used to produce light sedation and reduce stress.

“I can’t stress enough how this is not behaviour that would be observed in the wild,” said Ingrid Visser, founder and principal scientist at the Orca Research Trust. Visser also noted that the drug was given to Katina when she was nursing. “SeaWorld is clearly misusing diazepam -- as it also states in the clinical records that they are giving the drug to a nursing female -- the text reads ‘Nursing has decreased between Tina and the new calf...Diazepam has been given to Taku and Tina already.’”

According to veterinarian John Knight, a consultant for several large animal welfare organizations, diazepam is not meant for use on pregnant or nursing females. He writes in a document on the drug’s use in cetaceans, “Diazepam should not be administered to pregnant animals as it may cause birth defects, such as floppy baby syndrome, and interfere with the development of the nursing neonate.”

Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, echoed Knight's concerns: 

"Diazepam (Valium* and generics) is used by the captive dolphin industry to control behavioral disorders, such as stereotypies and anxieties, which are recognized as common problems in dolphinaria. This was confirmed by a recent court case against an Italian dolphinarium. While one-time administration is legitimately used to sedate animals during capture and transport, long-term usage results in drug tolerance and addiction, with increasingly higher doses needed to achieve the same effects. Long-term high dosage can cause amnesia, heightened anxiety, aggression, and unpredictability, as well as probable birth and neonatal defects when administered to pregnant or nursing females. 

Other medications administered to orcas at SeaWorld include pain medications and antibiotics, often to ease tooth damage caused by chewing on metal bars. SeaWorld’s recent affidavit references giving antibiotics and pain medication when discussing Ikaika and his dental issues, as well.

“I do not see dental issues like these in wild orca and, although there are documented dental issues with wild orca, they are rare,” said Visser. “Those that have been documented in the wild (such as abscesses) are clearly not a result of chewing on concrete and gates, because, obviously, wild orca are not contained in tanks.”

The amusement park maintained through a spokesperson that “There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care.” Visser said this statement “seems ironic and against common sense -- if they hold animals that are so stressed that they require these drugs, SeaWorld is clearly not meeting the health and well-being of these animals.”

Animal advocates say that using medication like diazepam on orcas is not a new technique -- though, without access to SeaWorld's veterinary records, it's impossible to know how widespread it is. Said Jordan Uhl, a spokesperson for PETA:

While there’s no further documentation readily available given the limited records that have been made public, this small glimpse into the company's vet records, as well as SeaWorld’s own acknowledgement of administering drugs, indicates that this is a common and widespread practice.