Media Coverage About SAEN Stop Animal Exploitation Now

Animal lab welfare group asks USDA to investigate Mystic Aquarium



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.


Animal lab welfare group asks USDA to investigate Mystic Aquarium

From Joe Wojtas,, June 2, 2022

An Ohio-based organization that has been successful in its efforts to have research facilities and laboratories fined and in some cases closed due to the mistreatment of animals has filed a complaint against Mystic Aquarium with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On May 25, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, or SAEN, asked the director of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS, to launch an investigation into an alleged "serious violation" of the federal Animal Welfare Act in connection with the February death of a beluga whale named Havana. In his letter, Michael Budkie, SAEN's executive director, called on USDA to fine the aquarium $10,000 a day per infraction for all violations dating back to September 2021.

In his letter to USDA Animal Welfare Operations Director Dr. Robert Gibbens, Budkie wrote that the aquarium "must be severely punished to demonstrate that the USDA has no tolerance for animal abuse/deaths/injuries which result from incompetence and negligence. You must take meaningful action to protect all other animals still in possession of Sea Research Foundation/Mystic Marine Life Aquarium from such carelessness and negligence."

SAEN monitors animal research laboratories for violations and Budkie said it found out about the allegations involving the aquarium due to a report filed about Havana's death with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, which is part of the National Institute of Health, or NIH. He said he reviews all those reports, which SAEN then uses as a basis for complaints to the USDA.

Lawsuits by SAEN and other organizations resulted in a $3.5 million penalty against Santa Cruz Biotechnology in 2016 for mistreating goats used in antibody research. The Dallas-based company also lost its research license. In 2013, Harvard University announced it was closing its Primate Research Center due to financial concerns. The announcement came after SAEN filed complaints about the center and USDA cited violations of the Animal Welfare Act after numerous monkeys there died between 1999 and 2014.

While his organization typically does not get involved with animal exhibitors such as the aquarium, Budkie said the aquarium is also a research facility, which is why SAEN decided to call for an investigation.

"They put themselves on our radar," Budkie said Tuesday. "Once a facility is on our radar, we don't go away."

Asked about SAEN'S complaint to USDA, the aquarium issued the following statement on Wednesday: "Mystic Aquarium responds appropriately to all the government inquiries and will respond to any requests APHIS may make regarding the SAEN complaint or any other matters."

Havana, who died Feb. 11, was one of five beluga whales that were transferred from Marineland Canada to the aquarium last year. Another one of the whales, a male named Havok, died Aug. 6, 2021.

The transfer was opposed by several animal rights groups, who argued it would endanger the whales, separate them from their social groups and violate the intent of a 2019 Canadian law aimed at phasing out the captivity of whales, dolphins and other cetaceans. The aquarium has maintained the animals were transferred for research purposes and would benefit from being removed from poor, overcrowded conditions at Marineland Canada.

A report by USDA inspectors criticized how Mystic Aquarium cared for Havok and issued five citations.

Among its findings, the reported stated "that in the eight hours prior to his death, staff members conducting the overnight watch documented multiple observations of abnormal behavior and did not alert the attending Veterinarian. The frequency of these abnormal behaviors markedly increased during this time compared to what had been observed previously." It also cited several problems with Havok's care.

The aquarium appealed some components of the findings but implemented six corrective actions in December 2021. USDA has opened an investigation into the death of Havok.

"I have no reason to believe that anyone on our animal care or veterinary staff willfully, intentionally, or in any way whatsoever, violated federal law in the conduct of their duties at Mystic Aquarium," aquarium President and CEO Stephen Coan wrote in a December 2021 letter to the NIH about the USDA inspection after Havok's death.

In the case of Havana's death, SAEN cited a USDA inspection report that found there were numerous days in November and December of 2021 in which there were high coliform bacteria levels in two pools that held Havana and another whale. At the same time, Havana's medical record shows the whale had cornea inflammation, abnormal eyelid muscle contraction, was not eating, had gastrointestinal discomfort and was rubbing her skin on the side of the pool. The whale's Dec. 8, 2021, medical record states, "coliform changes may have contributed to the (cornea inflammation) so plan to work with the LSS/WQ (life support system/water quality) team to mitigate even small fluctuations."

SAEN quoted from a May 9 aquarium report that stated in November 2021, Havana began "having a variable appetite and began demonstrating episodic abnormal behavior including abnormal swimming, contacting walls, and appearing as though she could not see. ... The whale continued to have occasional episodes of swimming, navigations, and orientation abnormalities over the next few months, always returning to normal after a period. Two days prior to her death, the whale exhibited abnormal respirations and lethargic behavior and treatments were changed. The following day the whale was brighter and had more normal sounding respirations and behavior; however, she experienced an emergency later that night and died on February 11, 2022."

SAEN stated in its letter to the USDA that "the failure to diagnose this chronic illness led to the death of this animal."

But in a May 8 letter to the NIH, Katie Cubina the aquarium's senior vice president for mission programs, wrote that Havana did well from her arrival at the aquarium in May 2021 until November 2021, when the abnormal behaviors began.

She wrote that a necropsy done after Havana's death revealed lesions indicating storage disease in the brain and spinal cord, which explained the neurological symptoms, as well as acute cardiac failure leading to pulmonary changes.

"This animal received 24-hour care by trained professionals throughout the period referenced above," she wrote. "This was an unpredictable health issue that could not have been prevented."

She wrote there is a "dearth of information" about storage diseases in cetaceans but in other species it is usually genetic and incurable in nature. She added diagnosis requires a microscopic examination of brain tissue, which was not possible before the whale died.

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