(May 18, 2007)

Mexico and US debate moving rescued killer whale

By Oliver Ellrodt
From Reuters

NUEVO VALLARTA, Mexico (Reuters) - A newborn killer whale found bleeding on a Mexican beach has become the center of an international controversy over whether she should stay in Mexico or be sent to a U.S. marine theme park.

Mexican aquarium workers have been feeding the baby named Pascuala around the clock with milk from a tube inserted in her mouth since she was found beached in a Pacific fishing village in April.

Pascuala, just over a month old and weighing 403 pounds (183 kg), is still recovering, but if she survives, the aquarium's owners want to send her to the Sea World park in San Diego, California.

Her caretakers say there is no tank in Mexico big enough to keep her when she grows and she will die if put back in the sea or kept in an aquarium that is too small for her.

Some environmentalists oppose transferring Pascuala to Sea World, however, because it could set a precedent that might enable animal traffickers to export more killer whales, also known as orcas.

"It hurts us that this animal might die, but we cannot set a negative precedent," said Alejandro Olivera, head of ocean campaigns for Greenpeace in Mexico.

The Mexican government's environmental protection agency has so far blocked a transfer to San Diego, saying Mexico's wildlife should not leave the country.

Sea World said it would be happy to accept Pascuala, where she could learn from the park's seven existing orcas. Those killer whales live in a 7 million gallon tank and perform tricks for legions of visitors.

Unaware of the controversy surrounding her, the baby orca spends her days swimming and playing with her trainers, who have grown attached to her while acting as surrogate mothers.

"It is more than a job or a work experience. This will be one of the most important parts of my career," said Fernando Miranda, who has worked at the Dolphin Adventure park in the Nuevo Vallarta resort city for 10 years.


Visitors have flocked to see the baby and hundreds check a blog set up in her name (http://orcapascuala.blogspot.com), where videos, photos and testimonials detail her meals, swimming lessons and attempts to play with nearby dolphins.

If Mexico refuses the transfer to Sea World, Pascuala could be released into the ocean. But experts say a successful reintroduction would be difficult for an animal raised with human contact and being fed by hand.

Killer whales, the largest and most intelligent members of the dolphin family, live in tight-knit pods that can travel 75 miles a day in search of prey. Scientists would have to find Pascuala's family and hope it would accept her.

This is not Mexico's first killer whale controversy. 'Free Willy,' the 1993 Warner Brothers blockbuster about an orca whose life is in danger, starred the real-life killer whale Keiko, whose home was a Mexico City amusement park.

Following the film's success, fans forced Keiko's move to a larger tank in Oregon and his 2002 release into the ocean. But Keiko continued to seek human contact and after a year died of pneumonia.

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