Media Coverage About SAEN Stop Animal Exploitation Now

Mystic Aquarium’s second beluga whale death prompts call for investigation



Dr. Robert Gibbens
Director, Animal Welfare Operations, USDA-APHIS
[email protected] 
[email protected]

Please levy the MAXIMUM FINE against the Mystic Aquarium/Sea Research Foundation, for their blatant disregard of the Animal Welfare Act when their negligence caused the death of a Beluga Whale. Their behavior should NOT be tolerated and MUST be punished to the fullest extent of the law.


Mystic Aquarium’s second beluga whale death prompts call for investigation

From Liz Hardaway,, June 1, 2022

An animal advocacy organization filed a formal complaint last week asking federal officials to investigate Mystic Aquarium after a second beluga whale died earlier this year.

In the complaint, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, a nonprofit based in Ohio that monitors U.S. research facilities for illegal behavior and animal abuse, alleged potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act regulations relevant to veterinary care.

According to a letter to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare attached in the complaint, an official with Mystic Aquarium said Havana, a 6-year-old beluga whale, “experienced an emergency” and died on Feb. 11.

An examination later showed “numerous significant lesions indicating storage disease in the whale’s brain and spinal cord” and “acute cardiac failure,” the aquarium wrote in the letter

The aquarium imported five beluga whales from a facility in Canada in May 2021 despite outcries from animal rights groups and a lawsuit. A few months later, in August 2021, 5-year-old Havok died while being treated for gastrointestinal issues. A federal oversight report revealed that staff recorded Havok’s “abnormal behavior” but failed to notify his veterinarian until hours after he died.

A second beluga whale, Havana, died in February.

Beluga whales typically live 30 to 35 years, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says these whales can live up to 90 years.

A spokesperson with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said the agency is looking into the complaint.

“The aquarium will respond appropriately to all government inquiries and we’ll of course respond to any requests that APHIS may make regarding SAEN’s complaint or any other matters,” said Meagan Seacor, a spokesperson for Mystic Aquarium.

SAEN filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 25. In the complaint, the organization states “negligence at this facility” killed Havana.

“You must take meaningful action to protect all other animals still in possession of [Mystic Aquarium] from such carelessness and negligence,” SAEN Executive Director Michael Budkie wrote in the complaint.

The complaint also calls for $10,000 penalties per infraction and/or animal, including violations recorded in a January inspection that stated Havana and another beluga whale’s pools had poor water quality.

The USDA inspected the aquarium’s six remaining beluga whales, along with 24 other animals, in early April and said the aquarium was in compliance at the time, according to a USDA inspection report.

In a letter to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, which was attached in the complaint, Mystic Aquarium’s Senior Vice President of Mission Programs Katie Cubina said Havana started having a “variable appetite” in November 2021. She “began demonstrating episodic abnormal behavior including abnormal swimming, contacting walls, and appearing as though she could not see,” the letter states.

The aquarium had various exams conducted to see what was causing this behavior. These tests came back mostly normal except her ocular exam showed “healing keratopathy,” or damage in the cornea, and “minor abnormalities” in other analyses. The aquarium stated in the letter that the whale was being monitored by animal care professionals 24 hours a day, received veterinary examinations daily and had extensive infectious disease testing.

Havana continued to have occasional episodes over the next few months, but always returned to normal, the aquarium said in the letter.

Two days before her death, Havana “exhibited abnormal respirations and lethargic behavior.” The aquarium changed its treatments, and the next day “the whale was acting brighter and had more normal sounding respirations and behavior,” the aquarium said in the letter.

Later that night, Havana “experienced an emergency” and died on Feb. 11, the letter said.

A necropsy and other tests showed “numerous significant lesions indicating storage disease in the whale’s brain and spinal cord, which explain the neurological behavior, and acute cardiac failure leading to the pulmonary changes described, which may have been secondary to the lesions in the central nervous system,” the aquarium wrote.

“This was an unpredictable health issue that could not have been prevented,” the aquarium stated in the letter. “Diagnosis required microscopic examination of brain tissue and was not possible antemortem.

Just before Havana’s death, the USDA noted in a January inspection that the pools housing Jetta and Havana, who were under veterinary care at the time, had water quality issues. Samples of the water in these pools showed that the coliform bacteria count, which is bacteria that is found in animal waste, “far exceeded” the standard

The inspection also stated that in December 2021 Havana’s medical record documented instances of inflammation of her cornea, eye twitching, a lack of appetite, GI discomfort and her rubbing the skin of her fluke and rostrum on the sides of the pool.

The first beluga whale, 5-year-old Havok, died in August 2021 while being treated for gastrointestinal issues. Though staff members recorded their observations of Havok’s behaviors — gasping breaths, water coming out of his blowhole and bleeding from his upper snout — “the veterinarian was not contacted during this eight-hour time frame until Havok’s death,” according to a USDA report.

The aquarium transported five whales total from a facility in Canada in May 2021 under a research permit. Friends of Animals, a Darien-based animal rights group, filed a lawsuit in late 2020 that claimed the whales would be harmed by the move. 

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