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  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 18 Jun 07
Other big aquariums face risks of cutting-edge captivity
By Jim Tharpe

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 16 Jun 07
Aquarium loosens lid on whale shark deaths
Chemical used in tank identified for first time
By Mark Davis

Yahoo News 14 Jun 07
Georgia aquarium probes second whale shark death
By Daniel Yee, Associated Press

Georgia Aquarium officials say it may be months before they know what caused Wednesday's death of another whale shark, the second this year at the only facility outside Asia that displays the huge, rare fish.

Norton's death also came only a few weeks after two new whale sharks arrived at the aquarium from Taiwan.

At the time, Taiwan fishery officials had said they were satisfied the aquarium provided the quality care the young whale sharks — named Yushan, which means "Jade Mountain" and Taroko, named after a national park in Taiwan — would need.

Aquarium officials planned a necropsy Wednesday afternoon for Norton. His death came five months after the death of Ralph, another whale shark that was among the aquarium's first stars after it opened in 2005.

"We were caught by surprise because he had responded to therapy," Ray Davis, the aquarium's senior vice president of zoological operations, said of Norton.

Davis said the remaining four whale sharks — Yushan, Taroko and the female whale sharks Alice and Trixie — were doing fine.

In the last few months, Norton had stopped eating and showed erratic swimming behavior. Husbandry staff noticed a decline in Norton's swimming behavior on Tuesday and blood work confirmed a decline in his health, officials said. Norton had been placed on a 24-hour watch.

Early Wednesday morning, the whale shark stopped swimming and settled to the bottom of the aquarium's centerpiece Ocean Voyager tank, aquarium officials said.

Divers brought him to a stretcher and "after every option had been exhausted to improve Norton's health, the team made the decision to humanely euthanize him," the aquarium said.

Before Ralph died in January, he had stomach problems that led to an inflammation of a membrane in his abdomen, according to aquarium officials. The aquarium theorized that his death may have involved a chemical used in the tank to treat parasites.

Aquarium officials said the tank's treatment routine — which has since been changed — likely contributed to Ralph's loss of appetite, but they say it's not clear that it had anything to do with the fatal peritonitis.

"Our husbandry and veterinary team are investigating multiple theories for any links between the deaths of the two animals," the aquarium said in a letter to its members.

Many attending the aquarium Wednesday had just learned of Norton's death, including Christine Obijeski of Alpharetta, Ga., who brought her 3-year-old daughter, Kristen, and her 4-year-old nephew, Richard Poelvoorde. "I told them Norton had died and they asked me why," Obijeski said. "They said he might have been sad because Ralph wasn't here."

Earlier this month, two new whale sharks — Yushan, which means "Jade Mountain" and Taroko, named for a national park in Taiwan, arrived to the aquarium from Taiwan. Taiwanese fishery officials previously said they were satisfied that the aquarium provides high-quality care of the animals before sending the two new whale sharks.

Georgia Aquarium scientists say the 6-million-gallon tank should be roomy enough for the massive sharks — which can grow up to 40 feet long.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 16 Jun 07
Aquarium loosens lid on whale shark deaths
Chemical used in tank identified for first time
By Mark Davis

For the first time since Norton the whale shark died this week, Georgia Aquarium officials answered questions Friday about his death and what might have curbed the appetites of Norton and his tankmate Ralph, who died in January.

Aquarium president and executive director Jeffery Swanagan publicly identified for the first time the anti-parasite chemical — Trichlorfon — used to treat the whale sharks' tank, shortly before the marquee fish got sick last year.

Swanagan also said that the aquarium, which opened in November 2005, has no immediate plans to add any more whale sharks to its Ocean Voyager exhibit, where four specimens of Rhincodon typus, the world's largest fish, now swim.

The necropsy on Norton Wednesday revealed nothing immediately, meaning it may be weeks or months before scientists know what made the big fish so sick, Georgia Aquarium officials said Friday.

The procedure lasted nine hours as specialists cut the 21-foot fish into sections, Swanagan said. The aquarium sent tissue samples from Norton to laboratories across the country, where scientists will look for clues into why the whale shark stopped eating.

The aquarium euthanized the creature Wednesday, after it sank to the bottom of its tank.

One possible culprit: Trichlorfon, a chemical the aquarium used last year to treat the sprawling tank for parasites."That's a leading theory," Swanagan said. Trichlorfon is a pesticide that's been used for decades in fields and fish tanks alike.

Previously, the aquarium had referred to the treatment only as a chemical routinely used in the aquarium industry. The aquarium's four surviving whale sharks were not in the Ocean Voyager tank when it was treated with Trichlorfon.

Alice and Trixie arrived in June 2006; males Taroko and Yushan joined them two weeks ago. All six whale sharks were exported from Taiwan.

"They're doing very well," Swanagan said.

Ralph and Norton appeared fine until late last year, when both stopped eating. Officials weren't immediately alarmed, said Swanagan, as whale sharks periodically stop eating in their travels.

Also, the two male sharks also were approaching sexual maturity, and employees theorized that Ralph and Norton might have been more interested in spawning than eating, Swanagan said.

In November, the aquarium gave Ralph a checkup, hoping to find hints for his loss of appetite. Two months later, he was dead.

A necropsy revealed that Ralph had peritonitis, an inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity. He also had perforations in his stomach, possibly caused by the PVC tube employees had used to force-feed the leviathan.

Norton's necropsy revealed no signs of peritonitis, said Swanagan, and his stomach was intact. The aquarium had periodically force-fed him, too.

"They aren't all alike," Swanagan said. "There are variants in all animals."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 18 Jun 07
Other big aquariums face risks of cutting-edge captivity
By Jim Tharpe

In downtown Atlanta, it's whale sharks. But it was a beloved beluga whale in Chicago. And in Monterey, Calif., the problem was blue sharks and later a suddenly aggressive — and very popular — Great White.

Some of the nation's major aquariums experienced a bit of déjà vu this week when the second whale shark in six months died at the Georgia Aquarium, unleashing a wave of negative publicity and stinging criticism.

In the world of big-time aquariums, Exhibits Gone Wild are a perennial concern of the people who run the big fish tanks and sometimes attempt to stretch the envelope with cutting-edge displays. Atlanta, which still has four whale sharks, is the only aquarium outside Asia to display the huge, filter-feeding sharks.

"It's certainly not the kind of news you want to be talking about," said Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the California coast.

"If you have a predisposition to say zoos and aquariums should not exist, critics will use the death of any animal to say, 'I told you so.' "

Monterey Bay, the Georgia Aquarium and Chicago's Shedd Aquarium — considered by many to be the nation's top fish tanks — have all had to deal with marquee exhibits in which high-profile animals died or suddenly veered off script.

The whale shark known as Norton died Wednesday at the Georgia Aquarium after months of appetite loss and forced feedings through a tube. His tankmate, Ralph, died in January of peritonitis after he too stopped feeding.

Some aquarium experts believe a chemical (trichlorfon) used to treat the whale sharks' 6-million gallon tank for parasites caused the two big sharks to stop eating, and led to a cascading series of problems that ultimately caused their deaths.

Ralph and Norton arrived together in June 2005, after an 8,000-mile journey from Taiwan, where they were caught as part of the annual quota harvested for food.

Jeff Swanagan, president and executive director of the Georgia Aquarium, said that despite the deaths, he is confident his scientists have the knowledge and ability to humanely care for and display whale sharks for the long haul.

"There is a learning curve you go through," Swanagan said. "And on the other side of that are great successes. I would imagine the first people who brought in a giraffe in or a zebra had the same kind of issues."

Whatever the cause, the demise of Ralph and Norton has rekindled the debate over whether aquariums should attempt to the keep large, oceangoing animals like whale sharks.

The four remaining whale sharks, which also came from Taiwan, arrived at the aquarium after Ralph and Norton and were not treated with the same parasite-killing chemical. They are healthy and eating "robustly," Swanagan said.

Peterson said Monterey experienced a major problem with a popular exhibit in 1995 when the aquarium placed six blue sharks in its Outer Bay exhibit. Two of the animals died, he said, and by 1998 the aquarium decided to release the remaining sharks.

"We said very quickly this is a species that doesn't do very well in our aquarium, and we have not had them since," he said.

A few years back, Monterey decided to display a Great White shark. It was a mini-version of Jaws — only 5 feet long — but created big headlines and long lines of ticket-buying visitors.

Things went well at first. The shark behaved, ate prepared meals on cue and grew to more than 6 feet. Then it began attacking and killing its tankmates, including several other sharks.

The aquarium quickly decided to release the shark after outfitting it with a data-collecting satellite tag. Monterey learned from that first experience, he said, and recently displayed another Great White with more success. That shark also eventually was released.

The 75-year-old Shedd Aquarium, which sits on the banks of Lake Michigan, created headlines in 1999 when one of its beluga whales, Immiayuk, died from a blood-borne bacterial infection six months after giving birth to a calf.

The death of the 14-year-old beluga sparked criticism from animal rights activists and other critics who condemn keeping belugas in captivity.

llinois Animal Action, an animal rights group, called for a Chicago City Council to ban the breeding and importation of whales and dolphins in Chicago.

"There are some people out there who find any death at any aquarium unacceptable," said Shedd spokesman Roger Germann. "If we have a beluga here for 25 years, and it dies, our critics say that shows we shouldn't have had beluga whales."

But Germann, echoing the sentiments of aquariums across the world, argued that scientific research on captive animals translates to helping their relatives in the wild. And, he said, the captive animals educate and inspire the public. That promotes conservation among large groups of people, he said, many of whom will never have the chance to see and empathize with the animals in the wild.

"The early days of having a cutting-edge display like whale sharks might be a lot rougher than you hope," Germann said. "But you gain a lot of knowledge, and hopefully it helps the others survive."

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