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Dutch govt orders whale transfer to Spanish zoo

By Arthur Max
Associated Press / October 12, 2011

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AMSTERDAM—Morgan, a 4-year-old killer whale, has lost her bid for freedom.

Agriculture Secretary Henk Bleker ruled Wednesday that the orca, rescued last year ailing and emaciated from the Wadden Sea off the northern Dutch coast, should be transferred to an amusement park on the Spanish island of Tenerife.

A Dutch court had suspended the government's export permit after an animal rights coalition presented a plan to release her to the wild in stages. A judge ordered the coalition, the Agriculture Ministry and the Harderwijk Dolphinarium, which put her ondisplay after nursing her back to health, to review the scientific evidence and work out a solution.

Bleker said after hearing arguments from both sides that Morgan's chances of survival were too slim if she were freed.

"This feels like a defeat because an animal like this really belongs in the sea and not a zoo," Bleker said in a statement. "Morgan belongs in the wild, but not at all costs."

He said the transfer to Tenerife's Loro Parque, which has one of the world's largest tanks for captured orcas, was "the least bad solution."

Conservationists calling themselves the Free Morgan Group said they would continue trying to block the transfer, first through legislative action and more legal appeals, and then physically if necessary.

"If all else fails, then we will take stark action to physically stop the deportation," said spokesman Wietse van der Werf.

The Animal Rights party, which holds two seats in the Dutch parliament, also will raise the issue in the legislature.

The dolphinarium cannot sell Morgan, since the commercial trade in orcas, an endangered species, is restricted by international law, but collaborates with Sea World and other marine parks.

In the court hearing, scientists disagreed about the whale's prospects of rehabilitation.

Experts summoned by the dolphinarium said Morgan was likely to die if she were released and unable to find her original pod, or family.

Marine scientists arguing for the coalition, however, said the whale's chances were good of integrating into another pod. They outlined a plan to move her to a bay south of Rotterdam where she could gradually get used to being in the wild again. She would be electronically tagged, followed by a boat on frequent "walks" to the open sea and closely monitored if she linked up with other orcas.

Orcas live 40 to 90 years in the wild and bear up to four calves. In captivity they frequently die before they reach age 10, said Van der Werf.

Orcas rarely have been successfully returned to the ocean after being in captivity.

The most famous example was Keiko, the star of the 1993 "Free Willy" film who was caught at age 2 near Iceland and spent many years in Mexico City. After 20 years in various marine parks, Keiko was flown back to Iceland and released under lengthy supervision. He died in 2003 at age 26, apparently of pneumonia, after surviving two months on his own and swimming about 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) to Norway.

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