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  WISTV 28 Mar 07
Aquarium: Stomach problems led to whale shark's death

by Bryce Mursch

Atlanta Journal Constitution 30 Mar 07
Questions on whale shark's death linger
By Mark Davis

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 29 Jan 07
Protests surface after high-profile aquarium deaths
By Mark Davis

ABC News 23 Jan 07
From Sushi to Science: Floating Fish's Death Could Provide Insight Into Little-Known Species
By Jonathan Fenaroli

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 19 Jan 07
Aquarium's service honorable to animals
By Marilee Menard

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 17 Jan 07
Aquarium ignored reality of captivity
By Naomi A. Rose

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 14 Jan 07
Life, death on display in animal world
By Tom Sabulis

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 13 Jan 07
Big fish's unexpected death brings lessons, opportunity

By Jim Tharpe

Access North 13 Jan 07
Whale shark necropsy shows no "obvious" cause of death

The Atlanta Journal Constitution 12 Jan 07
Shark death sparks renewed debate on captivity
By Jim Tharpe

MSNBC 12 Jan 07
Whale shark at world's largest aquarium dies

Death of teen male is a mystery; beluga whale was put to sleep earlier
Thanks to alert from November

Yahoo News 13 Jan 07
Necropsy performed on dead whale shark
By Charles Odum, Associated Press Writer

BBC 12 Jan 07
US 'celebrity' whale shark dies


Ralph the whale shark, a star attraction at Georgia Aquarium in the US, has died. Ralph, one of four whale sharks in the Atlanta aquarium, had not been eating well and had been showing unusual swimming patterns, officials say.

The 22ft-long (6.7m) fish was in effect only "a teenager", and the cause of his death was not immediately known. Ralph arrived at the aquarium in 2005 from Taiwan, where he had faced becoming seafood.

He and Norton - the aquarium's other male whale shark - arrived together and were joined a year later by two females, Alice and Trixie.

Gasper, one of the aquarium's five beluga whales, was also put down 10 days ago after months of declining health. Gasper and another 12ft-long Beluga whale, Nico, came to the aquarium from Mexico City, where they had lived in an exhibit surrounded by a large wooden roller coaster.

The aquarium, said to be the world's largest, houses more than 100,000 specimens. Whale sharks are the world's largest fish, growing up to 50ft long.

Yahoo News 13 Jan 07
Necropsy performed on dead whale shark
By Charles Odum, Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA - The first necropsy on a whale shark in the United States was performed Friday at the Georgia Aquarium following the animal's sudden death Thursday night.

The 22-foot whale shark, Ralph, was one of the first two whale sharks to be held in captivity in North America.

The aquarium's executive director, Jeff Swanagan, said there is no certainty the examination of Ralph's remains will explain the cause of his death. "It could be when they open the animal up and they look at its organs, they may see something real quick," he said. "It could take weeks or it could be that none of the results are conclusive."

After the shark stopped swimming Thursday, the aquarium staff moved it to another part of the tank and immediately began trying to revive him, but he died eight hours later, Swanagan said.

One of four whale sharks at the 1-year-old aquarium, Ralph showed no sign of trouble in his normal examination two months ago, but Swanagan said he recently began swimming in unusual patterns and was not eating well.

Ralph's death came less than two weeks after the death of the aquarium's beluga whale, Gaspar. Gasper suffered from a bone disease contracted before he was taken to the aquarium in 2005.

Ralph had no known disease, and Swanagan said there is no connection between the two deaths.

"While we're saddened and obviously a bit emotional to do this, we have to put on our scientific hat and make sure we learn from this for the benefit of the other three animals in our care and share that information with others in Asia," he said.

Swanagan said 15 or more experts would take part in the necropsy, which he said was expected to last all day Friday. "With our partnership with the University of Georgia's veterinary college and other collaborating scientists, we're going to gain a lot of information out of this," he said.

Following the procedure, the shark will be cremated, Swanagan said.

Ralph and Norton, the aquarium's other male whale shark, arrived in June 2005 from Taipei, Taiwan, where they had been destined to become seafood. They were joined a year later by two females, Alice and Trixie, in their 6 million gallon (23 million liters) tank.

They are the only whale sharks on display outside of Asia.

Whale sharks are the world's largest fish, growing more than 50 feet (15 meters) long. Swanagan said the aquarium's remaining three whale sharks "are swimming normally and we see no problems with them."

The aquarium was open for normal business hours Friday.

MSNBC 12 Jan 07
Whale shark at world's largest aquarium dies

Death of teen male is a mystery; beluga whale was put to sleep earlier
Thanks to alert from November

ATLANTA - One of the Georgia Aquarium's prized whale sharks died Thursday night the second death of a popular exhibit animal at the world's largest aquarium in 10 days. Ralph, one of four whale sharks at the year-old aquarium, stopped swimming Thursday afternoon and died about 9:30 p.m., aquarium spokeswoman Donna Fleishman said.

The cause of death was not immediately determined. Aquarium executive director Jeff Swanagan said a necropsy would begin on Friday.

"Recently, he has not been eating well and has had some unusual swimming patterns," Fleishman said. The aquarium staff moved the 22-foot shark to another part of the tank after he stopped swimming and immediately began trying to revive him, but he died eight hours later, Swanagan said.

Ralph and Norton, the aquarium's other male whale shark, arrived in June 2005 from Taipei, Taiwan, where they had been destined to become seafood. They were joined a year later by two females, Alice and Trixie, in their 6-million-gallon tank. They are the only whale sharks on display outside of Asia.

"The entire staff is saddened by what has happened," said Swanagan. "Sometimes nature deals you back to back deaths."

Teen had been tested earlier

Whale sharks are the world's largest fish, growing more than 50 feet long. Ralph was considered a teenager. He measured 22 feet at his last examination by scientists two months ago.

Swanagan said there was no sign of trouble in what was Ralph's third exam. Norton has been examined twice and Alice and Trixie once each. During the Nov. 6 examination of Ralph, a hose pumped a liquid anesthetic into the water around Ralph's head making him nearly unconscious for the two-hour checkup. Once he was under, veterinarians from the aquarium and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., took blood samples to test the adolescent shark's hormone levels and studied the inside of his mouth and gills to learn more about how he digests food. They took DNA samples and used an ultrasound machine, with a small, portable computer screen, to check on his internal organs. They also measured him to track his growth.

Beluga whale euthanized

Gasper, one of the Georgia Aquarium's five beluga whales, was euthanized Jan. 2 after months of declining health. The 17-year-old Gasper had been ill before arriving at the aquarium in October 2005. His health deteriorated further over the past few weeks. That led the aquarium's medical team to put him to death humanely, aquarium officials said.

More than 3 million people have visited the Georgia Aquarium since it opened in November 2005 far outpacing attendance predictions.

The aquarium is considered the world's largest, with roughly 100,000 fish and more than 8 million gallons of water.

Access North 13 Jan 07
Whale shark necropsy shows no "obvious" cause of death

The Associated Press - ATLANTA A necropsy of one of the Georgia Aquarium's prized whale sharks did not reveal any obvious causes of death, but the investigation is continuing and could take months, aquarium officials said Saturday.

Ralph, one of four whale sharks at the 1-year-old aquarium, died Thursday night. It was the second death of a popular exhibit at the aquarium in 10 days. Officials said the whale shark stopped swimming Thursday afternoon and died later that night.

The necropsy took 12 hours, as officials from the aquarium, the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine and the Sarasota, Fla.-based Mote Marine Laboratory examined the whale shark and took samples for future tests, said Ray Davis, senior vice president of zoological operations for the aquarium.

"We don't have any immediate findings. There was nothing that we could say--no obvious things were in place--to say this was the cause of death," Davis said Saturday. "This caught us by surprise. We did not have any expectation this was going to happen."

Davis said the three other whale sharks--Norton, Alice and Trixie--still are on exhibit in their 6-million-gallon tank. "We have not seen a change in these animals that indicates there is a problem. The life support system has been analyzed and reviewed, as well as previous records," Davis said.

Aquarium spokeswoman Donna Fleishman previously said Ralph had not been eating well and had some unusual swimming patterns before his death. The aquarium staff had moved the 22-foot shark to another part of the tank after he stopped swimming and immediately began trying to revive him, but he died eight hours later, Swanagan said.

Ralph and Norton, the aquarium's other male whale shark, arrived in June 2005 from Taipei, Taiwan, where they had been destined to become seafood. They were joined a year later by the two females, Alice and Trixie. They are the only whale sharks on display outside of Asia.

Gasper, one of the Georgia Aquarium's five beluga whales, was euthanized Jan. 2 after months of declining health. Whale sharks are the world's largest fish, growing more than 50 feet long.

Ralph was considered a teenager. He measured 22 feet at his last examination by scientists two months ago and officials were able to get a more accurate measurement of Ralph on Friday--21.5 feet long and weighing about a ton, Davis said.

Aquarium officials previously said there was no sign of trouble in what was Ralph's third exam. Norton has been examined twice and Alice and Trixie once each.

The 17-year-old Gasper had been ill before arriving at the aquarium in October 2005. His health deteriorated further over the past few weeks. That led the aquarium's medical team to put him to death humanely, aquarium officials said.

During the Nov. 6 examination of Ralph, a hose pumped a liquid anesthetic into the water around Ralph's head--making him nearly unconscious for the two-hour checkup. Once he was under, veterinarians from the aquarium and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., took blood samples to test the adolescent shark's hormone levels and studied the inside of his mouth and gills to learn more about how he digested food. They took DNA samples and used an ultrasound machine, with a small, portable computer screen, to check on his internal organs. They also measured him to track his growth.

More than 3 million people have visited the Georgia Aquarium since it opened in November 2005 _ far outpacing attendance predictions. The aquarium is considered the world's largest, with roughly 100,000 fish and more than 8 million gallons of water.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution 12 Jan 07
Shark death sparks renewed debate on captivity
By Jim Tharpe

No matter which side they fall on supporting or opposing keeping animals in manmade habitats scientists and environmentalists are eagerly awaiting word on what might have killed Ralph, the whale shark.

Marie Levine, executive director of the Princeton N.J.-based Shark Research Institute, said it's too early to speculate. "It could have been a congenital abnormality that would have killed it in the wild," Levine said. "We just don't know."

The Georgia Aquarium has three surviving whale sharks on display in its Ocean Voyager exhibit. It is the only aquarium outside Asia to display whale sharks.

"They are swimming fine," aquarium spokesman Dave Santucci said of the other sharks Friday. "We don't see any problems with them."

Ray Davis, the aquarium's senior vice president for zoological operations, said scientists had detected some "on and off feeding" by Ralph in the days preceding his death. But that's not unusual in sharks, Davis said. In the wild, they often go days and even weeks without feeding.

Davis said about a dozen people were involved in Friday's necropsy on the 22-foot, polka-dotted Ralph. He said it could take weeks of lab work to determine what killed the shark.

Meanwhile, aquarium officials will watch the other whale sharks. "We'll keep more eyes on them because we don't understand what happened to Ralph," Davis said. " Until we understand that we need to be at heightened observation."

Levine's organization initially opposed the aquarium's original plan to acquire whale sharks from Belize.

The aquarium eventually abandoned that effort and bought its whale sharks from Taiwanese fishermen, who harvest the big sharks for food. Because the sharks were taken from the Taiwanese whale shark quota, their relocation to the Georgia Aquarium was seen as a "rescue."

Still, Levine said, whale sharks the biggest fish in the ocean often have not fared well in captivity. Japan has had the most success an aquarium in Okinawa has kept the animals alive for more than a decade.

"Historically, they have not survived in captivity," Levine said in a telephone interview Friday morning. "This is an extremely rare animal. We were really hoping this would be a successful project."

Scientists know little about the huge sharks, which can grow more than 40 feet, and which swim in most of the world's warm oceans, generally as solitary creatures They had hoped to study them at the Georgia Aquarium.

Some early attempts to place the big sharks in aquariums in Asia were ill-conceived, biologists say, and the animals had little chance to survive. However, Japanese biologists refined tank designs and diets for their whale sharks, apparently ensuring their longevity.

The Georgia Aquarium used those advances to construct the whale shark's 6.2-million gallon tank and design their diet of krill, vitamins and gell food, a gelatin-like supplement that contains nutrients and foods the sharks eat in the wild. The tank was designed to hold up to six full-grown whale sharks.

Scientists had hoped to eventually breed Ralph and his tankmate Norton to the aquarium's female sharks, Trixie and Alice. Whale sharks have never been bred in captivity.

Sky Lantz-Wagner of Marietta said he was shocked to learn of Ralph's death. Lantz-Wagner's ecotourism company, Dove6, transports tourists to swim with whale sharks off the Yucatan Peninsula.

"It's a tragedy for a person who is inspired by whale sharks to see one of the most magnificent, mysterious animals anywhere die in captivity. It raises a lot of questions about keeping animals this large in captivity."

Lantz-Wagner, who is a season pass-holder at the aquarium, said he has seen Atlanta's whale sharks four times since the aquarium opened. He said he has mixed feelings about keeping them in capitivity.

"I think it's great that people have access to whale sharks and I'm one of the biggest fans of the Georgia Aquarium," he said. "But we have to find a balance between our interests and their interests."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 29 Jan 07
Protests surface after high-profile aquarium deaths
By Mark Davis

Nothing makes a protest come alive like a death or two. Jeff Swanagan knows. The president and executive director of the Georgia Aquarium, Swanagan stood by Jan. 2 when a veterinarian plunged a needle containing a fatal chemical into Gasper, euthanizing the ailing beluga whale.

Nine days later he watched as specialists tried to revive Ralph, one of the fish tank's marquee whale sharks. Ralph died, and no one yet knows why.

Now, the aquarium is in a fish bowl of its own. Back-to-back deaths of two big swimmers have prompted protests from private citizens and national organizations. They range from reasoned to outraged.

"If they'd never put whales or whale sharks there, then people never would miss them," said Russ Rector, an activist in Fort Lauderdale. "It went from an aquarium to a prison."

Swanagan, who has been in the zoo and aquarium business for nearly 30 years, still sounds surprised when he hears such emotional criticism. "It's almost like, I'd call it a religion," Swanagan said a week after Ralph died Jan. 11.

"It's like, 'You can't love animals' " if you oversee an aquarium, he said. The deaths have defined, again, the chasm separating aquarium fans and foes.

In the public-relations battle over large displays of fish and mammals, neither side is willing to give way to the other. The Georgia Aquarium protests took the form of e-mails, a newspaper column, telephone calls and a five-person candlelight vigil. The critics range from an angry ex-trainer of dolphins who nearly spits with indignation to a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University. They are as close as Chamblee and far away as the United Kingdom.

The aquarium has its supporters, too. A Covington resident who heads a state wildlife organization thinks the anti-aquarium people are all wet. A retired executive from SeaWorld defends the aquarium as an unmatched teaching tool. Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, says, in a laugh edged with irritation: "There's not one person who goes to work at an aquarium who does not love animals."

Pushing the envelope

Bernie Marcus, the Georgia Aquarium's chief benefactor, is an animal lover. The retired co-founder of Home Depot toured the world, looking for exhibits to populate the $300 million fish tank in downtown Atlanta.

When he saw whale sharks in Asian aquariums, he had to have some. In time, he got four: Ralph, Norton, Alice and Trixie. Their honeymoon with the public lingers today, more than a year after the aquarium's November 2005 debut.

Marcus remains convinced the aquarium did the right thing when it designed a tank big enough to accommodate swimming leviathans. In an e-mail Friday, he defended the decision to bring whale sharks to Georgia.

"We first asked our team, and then we asked those aquariums that have whale sharks, is this something we could do? Something we should do?" he said. "And they said 'yes,' for a variety of reasons. ...

"They said if mankind is going to help save whale sharks, we needed to study them and learn more about them, and make people aware of their existence," Marcus said. "They said any research we could accumulate would be invaluable. They convinced me that the whale sharks would not only amaze our guests, but that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people on this side of the world to ever even see these magnificent animals up close."

Naomi A. Rose of the Humane Society of the United States has another theory. The aquarium was willing to risk putting the creatures on display to give it an edge on every other aquarium in America, she said. Few have belugas, and none has whale sharks.

"These big swimmers aren't adaptable to confinement," said Rose, who wrote two columns critical of the aquarium that appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I really resent that they're exploiting these animals' lives."

Trying to duplicate a wild environment in a tank isn't possible, said Lori Marino, an Emory University professor. A neuroscience lecturer who specializes in cetaceans--whales, dolphins and porpoises--Marino believes the aquarium "pushed the envelope" when it placed belugas and whale sharks on display.

"There is a 'wow' factor there," she said. "But at what cost?"

A federal inventory of belugas in U.S. aquariums and marine parks indicates that they live about 11 years in captivity. Their maximum life expectancy in the wild is 30. Forty-five out of 75 belugas held in U.S. displays have died since 1972, according to records from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency has kept a tally of belugas since Congress passed the national Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972.

Statisticians tried to keep complete records of each dead whale that died in captivity the past three decades, but didn't always know a beluga's approximate birthdate, making age records sketchy.

One born in 1959 lived 25 years. Another lived one day. The causes of death included drowning, infection and trauma. Swanagan said he contacted the fisheries service after Gasper died, as required by law. As of Monday, the agency's inventory still listed him as living.

Education, research

Jim Antrim, a retired SeaWorld executive, has heard critics question aquarium displays for years. He has a query for them: "Do you think you can sit on a bluff and watch these whale sharks swim by and learn anything about them?" he asked. "It is naive to think you can learn about species if you don't bring them into a captive environment."

A San Diego resident, he insists that the Georgia Aquarium is doing everything right with its fish and mammal populations--even in death. The necropsies performed on Gasper and Ralph will be invaluable for their counterparts living in the wild, Antrim said.

(The aquarium cremated their remains and buried them in an animal cemetery in the metro area; it won't specify where.)

"It's about getting scientific data," Antrim said. "You just don't want to say, 'Oh, you [fish or mammal] don't look well.' "

Others say the aquarium also is performing a public-relations service for creatures that swim. Menard, whose organization includes aquariums and marine parks around the world, including the Georgia Aquarium, thinks the sight of a beluga can do wonders for a species' survival.

'You need to see them, be inspired by them, and care for them," said Menard. Aquariums also teach, said Jerry McCollum, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. Founded in 1936, the non-profit organization boasts nearly 60,000 members, ranging from bow-hunters to bird-watchers.

"You know, the more families you have that appreciate wildlife, the more wildlife conservation programs they'll support," he said. "The closer you get to it, the more affection and stewardship you have for wildlife."

The whale shark, the world's largest fish, also is one of its most mysterious, said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory.

Ralph helped raise awareness of them, he said. "I don't think his life was in vain," Hueter said. "I think he did a tremendous job in helping his fellow sharks in the wild."

'Fringe extremists'

The confinement/freedom debate has reached the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a licensing-and-standards agency for animal facilities all over the country. Based in Silver Spring, Md., it has 211 member institutions, including Zoo Atlanta. The Georgia Aquarium, barely a year old, is not a member. Swanagan said it will apply this year.

The AZA has heard arguments from "fringe extremists" against detaining animals, said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the organization.

"We are the animal-care experts," he said. "We care deeply about animals." When an animal dies at a member zoo or aquarium, the AZA requires the agency to file a detailed report, Feldman said. Since it is not an AZA member, the Georgia Aquarium didn't have to report Ralph's or Gasper's deaths to the agency, he said.

Would those deaths hurt the aquarium's chances at AZA membership? Feldman thinks not. "Animals are living things," he said. "Unfortunately, living things die."

That argument doesn't hold much water with the Captive Animals' Protection Society, a 50-year-old animal-rights organization based in Manchester, England, that claims 5,000 members worldwide.

"I think they [aquariums] should all be phased out," said CAPS publicity director Craig Redmond.

Swanagan dismisses such talk. "I think we should be given credit," he said. If we only wanted to bring [beluga] Nico here, we could have done it. We knew Gasper was sick. We just didn't know he was going to die."

And Ralph? Worldwide, fewer than a dozen whale sharks are in captivity; Swanagan isn't sure if Georgia Aquarium will add another to those ranks. Dino Vlachos hopes it won't.

The Chamblee resident is founder of Georgia Animals Rights and Protection. He joined four other people outside the aquarium Jan. 14 in a candlelight vigil for the fish tank's two dead stars, handing out brochures damning aquariums.

"It's tough to convince people about the cruelty," said Vlachos, who ignored the occasional catcall from passers-by as patrons left the aquarium. He has not been inside he aquarium. "I really can't," he said. "It's hard enough for me to deal with it without seeing it."

ABC News 23 Jan 07
From Sushi to Science: Floating Fish's Death Could Provide Insight Into Little-Known Species
By Jonathan Fenaroli

Officials are looking for answers in the sudden death of one of four prized whale sharks housed at the popular Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

Ralph the whale shark died unexpectedly on Jan. 11. Officials say the 22-foot-long Ralph stopped swimming that afternoon and died later that night.

Ralph and Norton, the aquarium's other male whale shark, arrived at the aquarium in June 2005 from Taiwan, where they had been destined to become seafood. The pair were joined a year later by two females, Alice and Trixie. The aquarium is the only place outside Asia that holds whale sharks.

Ralph and his companions came from Hualien, Taiwan, where an annual quota of whale sharks is harvested for food. Through an agreement with the Taiwanese government, the giant fish were pulled from that quota and brought to Atlanta.

"We work very closely with the local fishing population in securing these animals," said Ray Davis, the aquarium's senior vice president of zoological operations.

Davis, one of the scientists who accompanied Ralph from Taiwan, says the fishermen are as important as the fish when it comes to catching whale sharks. "They are absolutely critical to what we do," he said.

Now that a necropsy on Ralph is complete, his remains--all 1 ton of him--will be sent to a crematorium and then to an undisclosed pet cemetery, where they will be buried in the ground. It seems like an unlikely end for a seafaring giant that once seemed destined to become soup or sushi.

Fresh Fish: Planes, Cranes and Automobiles

Ralph's Homeric journey from the waters off Taiwan's coast to Atlanta was a remarkable one. This was no pet-shop guppy in a clear, plastic bag.

The mighty fish was caught unceremoniously and randomly in a massive, fixed net. Ralph was then transferred with more help from the locals to an underwater holding pen.

From there, the scientists took over. Young Ralph, then only a puny 15 feet long at the time, was moved to a specially designed sea pen, then to a mobile life-support container and trucked to the airport.

The whale shark was then loaded and flown to Alaska on a specially equipped UPS-donated 747 cargo plane, off-loaded, put on to another plane, and flown south to Georgia. From there it was yet another truck ride to the aquarium.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 13 Jan 07
Big fish's unexpected death brings lessons, opportunity

By Jim Tharpe

The Georgia Aquarium had hoped to become much more than just a big fish tank when it opened just over a year ago. And it pinned many of its lofty aspirations on whale sharks like the huge, polka-dotted fish named Ralph who died this week.

But the massive shark's sudden--and unexplained--death on Thursday raises serious questions about where the aquarium goes from here in its unprecedented attempt to understand one of the ocean's most elusive and mysterious creatures. biology and could actually expand and refocus research efforts in the wild, some of which are funded by the downtown Atlanta facility.

"This increases our commitment and our resolve to study the animals here and in the wild," said Jeff Swanagan, the aquarium's executive director. "Bernie (Marcus, the aquarium's chief benefactor) said last night, 'Let's not worry about this setback. Let's increase our efforts to understand this animal.'"

But the demise of the 22-foot-long shark has also delayed some planned experiments at the aquarium until scientists can determine exactly what killed the juvenile fish.

And it has provided a new platform for conservationists who have criticized the facility for confining the ocean-going creature.

"They are taking a conservative approach toward research proposals right now," said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory, who flew to Atlanta on Friday for Ralph's necropsy. "We're not going to rush toward anything in light of this."

Aquarium officials say they will continue their research efforts and won't rule out getting another whale shark to replace Ralph. "Right now, we're not focused on that (getting another whale shark)," Swanagan said. "At a certain point, we might say, 'Do we want to rescue some more animals?' It remains an option."

Swanagan said the aquarium carried no insurance on Ralph, which he said is prohibitively expensive. He said obtaining the animals was relatively inexpensive, but transportation could have sent the total cost soaring.

United Parcel Service donated transportation from Taiwan for Ralph and another male whale shark named Norton. "I haven't done the math, but you are talking in the millions," he said.

The death of Ralph is the latest setback for the aquarium, which less than two weeks ago had to euthanize Gasper, a beloved beluga whale who was sick when he was rescued from substandard conditions at a Mexico City amusement park.

Ralph, however, was thought to be a healthy animal that had grown and was putting on weight since his arrival in 2005.

More than half a dozen U.S. aquariums have belugas, while the Georgia Aquarium has the only whale sharks on display in this hemisphere. The only other captive whale sharks are found in aquariums in Asia.

The aquarium obtained its whale sharks from Taiwan where they are known as the "tofu shark" and harvested as food. The four sharks transported to the aquarium came out of Taiwan's yearly harvest quota and were considered a "rescue."

The fish can grow to more than 40 feet, and the $300 million Georgia Aquarium was designed specifically to accommodate up to six full-grown whale sharks. The aquarium had the largest number of whale sharks on display of any aquarium on earth until Ralph's death.

It still has three--the same number as the Okinawa, Japan, aquarium--and those are being monitored carefully in wake of Ralph's death. Georgia Aquarium officials said Friday they had detected no apparent problems with the three surviving sharks.

Aquarium officials had hoped to eventually breed Ralph and Norton to their two female whale sharks--Trixie and Alice--who share the 6.2-million gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit. But that possibility was years away since the sharks are still very young.

Hueter and Philip Motta, a shark scientist from the University of Florida, have proposed controlled studies of the shark's feeding methods. Hueter also wants to study how the fish navigate. He said he still anticipates launching some of the studies by late spring.

Almost nothing is known about the gentle giants, who are generally solitary animals but who occasionally congregate in large numbers to feast on seasonally abundant plankton. One of those gatherings occurs each summer off the Yucatan Peninsula, and Hueter has studied whale sharks there with funding provided by the aquarium.

Sky Lantz-Wagner of Marietta runs an ecotourism business off the Yucatan that carries tourist-adventurers to swim with the big sharks as they slowly vacuum up plankton near the water's surface.

"It's a tragedy for a person who is inspired by whale sharks to see one of the most magnificent, mysterious animals anywhere die in captivity." Lantz-Wagner said of Ralph's death. "It raises a lot of questions about keeping animals this large in captivity."

Some critics contend there is a 30 percent mortality rate for whale sharks during their first year of captivity.

Supporters point out that in recent years the Japanese, who pioneered putting whale sharks on public display, have been able to sustain the filter-feeding fish for more than a decade. Given that progress, they contend, the Georgia Aquarium's whale sharks should be able to live long and healthy lives in downtown Atlanta.

Craig Redmond of the Captive Animals' Protection Society, which lobbies on behalf of animals in circuses, zoos and the entertainment industry, labeled the Georgia Aquarium's acquisition of Ralph and Norton two years ago as "dangerous." He has called for a shutdown of the aquarium industry.

Rachel Graham, a scientist who has conducted research on whale sharks in Belize, sent a mass e-mail to her colleagues in 2005 blasting the Georgia Aquarium's decision to display the fish.

She noted that her research indicated that the sharks in the wild undertake a pattern of rhythmic dives that can reach hundreds of meters--behavior impossible in a 30-foot-deep aquarium tank.

But Sylvia Earle, National Geographic's Explorer in Residence, on Friday applauded the aquarium decision's to bring whale sharks to Atlanta even in the wake of Ralph's death. "The best aquarium for any animal is the big one--the ocean," said Earle, author of several books of ocean biology, in a telephone interview. "But these fish in Atlanta are so valuable as ambassadors to help people see and understand things they ordinarily would not see." "Millions of people have had a chance to meet Ralph face-to-face and now know something about whale sharks they would not have known."

California's Monterey Bay Aquarium has also kept large, ocean-going sharks on display. The aquarium displayed a young Great White shark a few years back, but had to release it after it began eating other sharks in its tank. They now have another young Great White on display, but anticipate releasing it soon.

Monterey spokesman Ken Peterson said the benefits of displaying such animals outweighs the problems and criticism that come with the territory. "We know that these kinds of animals have a strong inspirational impact on our visitors," he said. "They come away changed by seeing one of these animals and that makes them more receptive to conservation message about these animals. It motivates and inspires people to preserve them in the wild."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 19 Jan 07
Aquarium's service honorable to animals
By Marilee Menard

Watch the face of a child looking in wonder at a gracefully swimming beluga whale. It's a magical moment, not only for children but for adults, as well. Connecting people to live animals is a powerful, proven way to promote wildlife conservation. Thanks to the Georgia Aquarium, more than 4 million people understand and care more about marine animals, especially belugas and whale sharks.

It is an insult to the aquarium's professional staff, volunteers, members and the city of Atlanta for activist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States to suggest that it would have been better for Gasper the beluga whale and Ralph the whale shark to die rather than be rescued by the aquarium, where they received excellent care and inspired millions of visitors

Rose's goal is a transparent effort to stop aquariums and zoos from having animals on public display. But she ignores the proven benefits that institutions such as the Georgia Aquarium provide by connecting people with animals and nature.

Many animal rights groups and activists such as Naomi Rose strategically use sad news, such as the death of high-profile animals, to publicly attack aquariums and zoos.

However, the mainstream public strongly supports aquariums and recognizes the high level of care by professionals who commit their lives to the well-being of these animals and to conservation of marine life in the wild.

The truth is, the Georgia Aquarium enabled millions of people to meet Gasper and Ralph. How many Atlanta residents would know or care about the plight of belugas and whale sharks in the wild if not for the extraordinary educational experience provided by the aquarium?

In an increasingly urbanized society, aquariums and zoos provide visitors with a critical connection to nature that cannot be duplicated in a video or in a book or on the Internet.

The Georgia Aquarium makes significant contributions to advancing research and knowledge of marine animals, particularly whale sharks. It is heavily involved in collaborative research programs with the University of Georgia and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and is an active member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, whose members represent the largest body of knowledge on marine mammal care.

For example, almost everything that is known about whale and dolphin species cared for in our facilities has been learned through scientific studies in aquariums and marine life parks over the last 40 years. This knowledge directly benefits animals in the wild.

Atlanta is fortunate to have a world-class aquarium that connects people with the wonders of the marine world through unique "a-ha" experiences and is showing how each of us can make a difference in protecting this fragile environment.

While critics spend resources on campaigns to try and stop aquariums from providing these experiences, the Georgia Aquarium is committing enormous resources to marine education, scientific research and global conservation. That's what will truly ensure the future of marine animals.

Marilee Menard is executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an international association of marine life parks, aquariums, zoos, research facilities, and professional organizations.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 17 Jan 07
Aquarium ignored reality of captivity
By Naomi A. Rose

Gasper the beluga whale and Ralph the whale shark are dead. The Georgia Aquarium's executive director, Jeff Swanagan, was quoted in the AJC as saying, "Sometimes, nature is that way. It can be cruel in terms of back-to-back tragedies."

It was not Nature that killed Ralph and Gasper, but captivity.

Swanagan was among those who claimed that one of the advantages of captivity was that it protected these animals from the cruelties of nature. He should not now trot out these cruelties as an excuse for the animals' deaths.

And, of course, there is the irony that the Georgia Aquarium's tanks are not natural in the first place--they are artificial in the truest sense of the word.

The Humane Society of the United States opposed the beluga and whale shark exhibits at the aquarium from the beginning. We expressed concerns about the belugas' and whale sharks' survival chances.

It is very frustrating when a national animal protection organization with considerable experience and expertise in the welfare of captive marine life expresses concern, is ignored, and then must endure the statements of aquarium staff along the lines of "No one could have foreseen this" and "We have no idea what happened" and "Nature is cruel."

Apparently, Swanagan has even stated that the aquarium's activities, known for pushing the envelope, sometimes "don't work out." Well, they didn't work out this time, but it wasn't the aquarium that suffered for this failed experiment--it was Gasper and Ralph.

Gasper died young because he was traumatically captured from the wild when he was a juvenile; was subjected to terrible conditions in a Mexican amusement park; was made sick by those conditions; and was then subjected to a long transport that caused considerable stress.

The stress faced by whales and dolphins during transport is a scientific fact. Several studies have documented the hormonal reactions of these animals during transport and their negative impacts on the animals' health.

Gasper really didn't stand a chance. His survival chances would have been better if he had been removed from the Mexican park, but placed somewhere closer, to avoid the stress of the long plane trip to Atlanta.

The aquarium chose to fool itself and the public into believing that somehow its staff would miraculously save his life. After Gasper's sorry history in captivity, for Swanagan to blame Nature for his death is deplorable. Maybe he would have died in the wild anyway, but that's pure speculation--given his health in Mexico, his death in Georgia was nearly a certainty.

We expressed this very concern to reporters on the opening day of the aquarium.

As for Ralph, Swanagan claims that the aquarium rescued him and Norton, the other whale shark, from a certain future as sashimi on an Asian dinner plate. The obvious response to that now is--not so much.

The jury is still out on Norton and the two females at the aquarium, but clearly Ralph was not rescued at all. He is dead.

In my professional opinion, the necropsy results are likely to be inconclusive unless some obvious physical problem, such as a swallowed foreign object, reveals itself, given the relatively limited state of veterinary knowledge regarding whale sharks.

What killed Ralph, and may yet kill the other whale sharks, are captivity, ignorance and arrogance. Little is known about whale sharks in the wild, which makes knowing how to keep them alive in captivity a bit of a hit-or-miss exercise, one that is academic for aquariums, but life or death for the sharks.

The aquarium has claimed it is an educational facility and the whale shark and beluga exhibits are valuable teaching tools. It claims its goal is to learn more about these animals and now the staff says that even in death, some good can still be had if the post-mortems of Gasper and Ralph provide new information and insights.

Yet rather than making Gasper's tissues widely available to researchers or veterinarians, he was cremated. Hypocrisy is the name of the game here, and it should not pass unchallenged.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 14 Jan 07
Life, death on display in animal world
By Tom Sabulis

When the phone call took place, the leaders of Atlanta's two animal kingdoms were in opposite frames of mind.

Dennis Kelly, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, was at his Brookhaven home preparing for one of the most triumphant days of his career: Friday's public unveiling of Mei Lan, the panda cub that represents years of research at the zoo.

Jeff Swanagan, executive director of the Georgia Aquarium, was feeling less than festive. Sitting in his office at the aquarium, he was told that Ralph the whale shark, one of his marquee attractions, had sunk, gravely ill, to the bottom of the Ocean Voyager exhibit tank.

His first reaction upon hearing the news? "It was," he said quietly, "a big uh-oh." After a brief rescue attempt, Ralph was declared dead. Swanagan phoned professional associates to share the news; Kelly was one, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association was another.

"Jeff knew we were doing this [unveiling of the panda cub]," Kelly said. "He let me know that his news would conflict with our celebration."

The juxtaposition of events serves as yet another example of the circle of life and death played out on an almost daily basis at zoos and aquariums.

Perhaps the proudest day in Zoo Atlanta history dawned less than 12 hours after the aquarium suffered its darkest hour. After all, the Jan. 2 death of Gasper, the aquarium's ailing beluga, was no surprise: The aquarium had prepared everyone for his death months in advance.

The demise of Ralph, according to official reports, was as sudden as a heart attack. It put a momentary damper on things at the zoo, too. Kelly led off Friday morning's panda celebration with an expression of sympathy and support for the aquarium.

He could relate: In March 2004, a mature silverback gorilla named Caesar was brought from Los Angeles, with much fanfare, to breed with Zoo Atlanta's females. Less than two months later, he was dead of a gastrointestinal disorder. A period of grief ensued.

A year later, however, a new stud gorilla named Taz emerged to spark a new wave of births for that critically endangered species. Although he has an impossibly cute young panda to trumpet, Kelly knows the zoo will suffer major deaths, perhaps soon.

Five of its western lowland gorillas are in their 40s, considered very old for the species. (One of them, Ivan, born in 1962, has periodontal disease and is losing his teeth. The zoo cooks all his vegetables for him so he can chew and digest his food.)

"We have to do a good job reminding our guests that death is part of the life cycle and all our animals are going to die," said Debra Kerr Fassnacht, executive vice president of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

It's easy to believe, she said, that Ralph was sick without anyone knowing. A necropsy was performed Saturday, but the cause of death is still unknown. "Animals in the wild learn to mask their problems because that makes them vulnerable," she said. "Sometimes, despite the best care, you don't know there's a problem until they're gone."

Finding a cause for Ralph's death will help, she said. But that may not happen. "Hopefully they will find something, but it's always possible they will not. If we don't, we know they are doing the best possible job. Georgia Aquarium is a state-of-the-art facility."

Swanagan is ready for some public fallout from Ralph's death. "I fully expect that people will come out and say, 'I don't think you should have animals in captivity,' " he said. "We don't agree with that."

The aquarium's board has given "100 percent support" to continue research efforts, he said.

Will they find a replacement whale shark for Ralph? "I haven't talked about that," he said. "The possibility is in our realm to think about that, but it hasn't been on our radar screen. It takes a lot of resources to do this, and it's not easily done."

For now, all focus is on finding out what happened to Ralph. "Even though our hearts are saddened," Swanagan said, "we have to put on our scientific hats and maximize what we learn about this."

Sometime later, perhaps, the aquarium staff can take up the zoo's invitation to meet Mei Lan. "I'm really anxious," Swanagan said, "to get over there to see that panda."

WISTV 28 Mar 07
Aquarium: Stomach problems led to whale shark's death

by Bryce Mursch

(Atlanta-AP) Officials said Wednesday that the January death of a whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium was likely caused by stomach problems that led to peritonitis.

The aquarium released results of a necropsy from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine on Ralph, a whale shark that died on January 12th.

In a statement, aquarium executive director Jeff Swanagan said the whale shark's stomach "appeared abnormal, because it was thin-walled and perforated. This likely caused peritonitis, which led to Ralph's death."

He said physical examinations of the aquarium's other male whale shark, Norton, have not revealed the same condition. Peritonitis is an inflammation of an important membrane in the abdomen.

Swanagan said Ralph began losing his appetite last year after a series of treatments was prescribed to the Ocean Voyager exhibit to suppress a parasitic leech commonly found on aquatic animals.

After several treatments, he said, the appetites of Ralph and Norton declined, and they eventually stopped eating. Alice and Trixie, the Aquarium's two female whale sharks, were not exposed to the same number of treatments and have not shown the same behavior.

Atlanta Journal Constitution 30 Mar 07
Questions on whale shark's death linger
By Mark Davis

A day after the Georgia Aquarium released test results showing that Ralph, its famous whale shark, died of peritonitis earlier this year, questions remain about what caused a deadly perforation in his stomach, and critics again blasted the institution for trying to display the giant creatures in captivity.

"They blew it," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal researcher with the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington. "They took a huge gamble with a fish they knew little about, and now it's dead."

Marie Levine, executive director of the Shark Research Institute of Princeton, N.J., expressed doubt that any aquarium tank is appropriate for such a large animal. Whale sharks, she noted, are capable of diving 2,500 feet deep. "There's no aquarium anywhere that can duplicate that," she said.

Jeff Swanagan, Georgia Aquarium's president and executive director, insists that Ralph got the best care possible, as do its other species. "They're entrusted to us," Swanagan said. "They're our responsibility."

The facts being released by the aquarium staff are few: The partial results of a necropsy, released Wednesday, indicate that Ralph succumbed Jan. 11 from peritonitis brought on by a perforated stomach. The 22-foot fish, which had recently lost its appetite and was being force-fed, simply stopped swimming and sank to the floor of the Ocean Voyager exhibit. Within hours, he was pronounced dead.

The clinical answer to his death has done little to quiet other questions.

Did force-feeding the leviathan using a 5-foot-long PVC pipe, about an inch-and-a-half in diameter possibly perforate his stomach? A shark expert in Florida believes the feeding tube may have irritated Ralph's gut but didn't cause a hole in it.

Did water treatment for leeches contribute to Ralph's declining health? The aquarium says it has discontinued that treatment. Officials, however, have declined to identify the specific brand of treatment and chemicals involved.

Did the world's largest aquarium inadvertently kill the whale shark, or was he already sick? It may never be known.

Ralph's death left three whale sharks in the sprawling 6.2 million-gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit: Norton, Trixie and Alice. Trixie and Alice appear to be in good health Trixie may be a little too fat, officials say. But Norton, like Ralph, isn't eating regularly. And Norton, like Ralph, was in the tank when the aquarium treated the exhibit with chemicals to combat the growth of leeches. The females, who appear robust, were not.

Norton also is getting weekly force-feedings, a gruel of krill and saltwater. (It is routine practice to feed aquarium fish through tubes, experts say. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, for example, force feeds many creatures, from seahorses to trout and sharks, according to spokesman Roger Germann.)

But whale sharks are as mysterious as they are big; little is known about them. After Ralph's necropsy, the aquarium sent tissue samples to several laboratories, including the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Late last week, the vet school's pathologists gave the aquarium their conclusions: Ralph had peritonitis, an inflammation of his stomach lining, and a perforated stomach. It was a fatal affliction, a "smoking gun," aquarium officials said.

But the smoke isn't completely clear.

Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., participated in the necropsy. In addition to the perforation, Ralph's stomach had abrasions, Hueter noted.

Could the force-feedings have caused those scrapes? "I will say only that there's a possibility that the tube contributed to the irritation in the stomach," Hueter said Thursday. The aquarium, Hueter said, was relying on common procedure when it began feeding Ralph and Norton through a tube. "The animals tolerate this very well," Hueter said. "This wasn't a bunch of guys just making things up."

Others disagree, perhaps none so vigorously as Rose at the Humane Society. Rose reserved pointed criticism earlier this year for the Georgia Aquarium when Gasper, a star beluga whale, died. She was just as incensed when Ralph died less than two weeks later.

"I can guarantee you," she said, "that they'll never be force-feeding whale sharks in the wild."

Necropsy results show Ralph had a thin-walled stomach, said Tim Binder, the aquarium's director of husbandry. No one knows why, he said. Aquarium employees recently performed an endoscopy on Norton, looking for abnormalities in his stomach, and found none.

That leaves the aquarium puzzling over why Ralph's stomach apparently was different. Swanagan suggests that Ralph may have been born that way, or developed thin walls before coming to Georgia, or could have developed the condition here.

Specialists also wonder why Ralph's and Norton's appetites declined, while the females continue feeding regularly. Binder and Swanagan insist that the leech treatment in question had nothing to do with the creatures' eating habits, though Ralph and Norton were in the tank when it got treated, while Alice and Trixie were not.

The treatment was "eliminated ... when Ralph and Norton's appetites began to decline," the husbandry staff said in an e-mail.

Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, said "eight or nine" different anti-parasitic drugs could have been used. "It depends on what you're treating, who their roommates are," he said. "There are a lot of variables."

Has the aquarium had to force-feed other species? Aside from Norton, officials won't say. "The manner in which we treat animals in need of nutritional support is based upon best husbandry standards under the direction of the veterinarian staff," spokesman Meghann Gibbons said in an e-mail.

The aquarium said it is awaiting results from other laboratories to learn more about Ralph's demise.

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