Dental Abscesses in a Killer Whale are Drilled Out by SeaWorld Vet Dr Dold

posted Aug 21, 2015, 1:07 PM by Jeffrey Ventre   [ updated Aug 23, 2015, 3:29 PM ]
On one hand Dr Christopher Dold claims that SeaWorld killer whales are "thriving." With the other he's drilling out abscessed & pus-filled captive orca teeth. So what gives? Newly acquired medical records help bring to light the unjust practice of killer whale captivity at SeaWorld as well as the misinformation used to perpetuate the industry.  

Regarding theme park killer whales, anthropogenic teeth damage is the most tragic consequence of their captivity. Not only does it cause the animals pain, abscess, systemic infection, & over-utilization of antibiotics, it also renders the orca less likely to survive on their own in the wild; although broken & bored out teeth do not exclude cetaceans from being placed in an oceanic sanctuary where they could receive lifetime dental care. Sadly, this man-made problem is ubiquitous among adult killer whales at SeaWorld entertainment parks, including with its corporate assets at Loro Parque, such as Morgan. Read the medical SOAP note of Dr. Christopher Dold, at the bottom. It describes the abscessed teeth of Ikaika, and the subsequent pulpotomy procedures used to bore out the pulp and pus trapped inside his infected teeth. 

Teeth damage is a carefully guarded & spun industry secret because it is both very serious and also very obvious once the public has been educated on the matter. As described in the human dental literature, here, "Serious consequences arising from the spread of a dental abscess lead[s] to significant morbidity and mortality." And while not reported as a primary cause of death for killer whales at SeaWorld, poor dentition, including open bore holes, provide a direct pathway for bacteria, viruses & other pathogens to enter the blood stream, lungs, kidneys and other body systems of the orca. Weakened immunity is associated with viral & bacterial pneumonia in humans, and pneumonia is the leading cause of death in captive killer whales. 

2 Examples of Captive Orca Mortality that Probably Relate to Poor Dentition: 

Both Kanduke (SeaWorld transient, died 1990) and Taku (SeaWorld captive born Icelandic, died 2007), succumbed to viral infections that are not typically fatal (St Louis Encephalitis & West Nile Virus, respectively). They both had incredibly poor dentition, and acquired neuroinvasive (disseminated) forms of their respective viral diseases (which attacked the brain). It is likely that the condition of their teeth led to a state of compromised immunity, allowing for a non-lethal virus to become deadly. A peer-reviewed article regarding Kanduke & Taku is here

NOTE: Anthropogenic teeth damage in captive killer whales at SeaWorld has been described. This list is not comprehensive: 

Decoded Science, Jan 9, 2014, Batt, Jett, Ventre 

How does SeaWorld manage the public relations issue of fractured & diseased teeth? 

It famously spins the teeth drilling & irrigation sessions to the public as, "Superior Dental Care." Conducted in plain view at Shamu Stadium(s), teeth flushing-sessions are done 2-3 times daily, for each adult whale, to prevent abscess and to keep the captives alive. Instead of explaining the reasons for the dental irrigation & pulpotomies [fractured & ground teeth from captivity] the corporation frames dental work as a benefit of captivity, omitting the key point that captivity itself is the cause. This fact is why we call it "anthropogenic teeth damage." It's caused by man. 

Not only do SeaWorld workers (including us former trainers when we were there) describe the benefits of captivity, they argue (as seen in the film Blackfish) that SeaWorld whales actually have it better than their wild brethren. Of course nothing is further from the truth. Of all mammalian species that have been placed into confinement, Orcinus orca, for a list of reasons, is the worst one, rivaled only by elephants in zoos & circuses.  

In addition to their restricted movements, captive cetaceans live in an acoustic nightmare; dealing with amplified music, pneumatic gate noise, ineffective echolocation, construction noise (with rare jack hammering), kids constantly slapping on the glass, & nightly fireworks during the summer months & holidays. For reference, on 24 February 2010, when former trainer Dawn Brancheua was killed, there was extensive construction occurring at Shamu Stadium in Orlando, and Tilikum was receiving antibiotics & anti-fungals for a low grade infection.  

In regard to teeth-flushings, a modified "Water Pik" with a metal catheter is used to squirt antiseptic solution deep into the orca's bore-hole & jaw to up-well fish debris, guts, bacteria & roe that get plugged in the opening; and also to mildly disinfect the area (Please note the photographs near the end of this article). In our era, and as described by Dr. Dold, below, a diluted Betadine solution is used for this purpose. For the record, the type of teeth damage sustained by killer whales in captive environments is unlike anything seen in wild orca populations, including offshore orca ecotypes. This is important because SeaWorld staff are famous for conflating the damaged teeth of it's captive whales with the normal teeth wear seen in a specific & relatively little-known subset of killer whales known as "offshores." 

Here's what you need to know to navigate through SeaWorld's misinformation & attempts to confuse the public on killer whale dentition:  There are 10 recognized killer whale ecotypes, five in the Northern Hemisphere and five in the Southern Hemisphere. All ten have different customs, behaviors and food preferences. Offshore orca have been described by John Ford, here, where he discusses teeth-wear as a consequence of eating a particular prey, the rough-skinned Pacific Sleeper shark. Over the course of many years, the offshores' teeth are worn down from biting through this rough-thick skin during normal feeding behavior

SeaWorld uses this observed normal teeth-wear in offshores to make the claim that teeth wear is a problem for both captives and wild animals. Not true. They want you to believe, "Our whales are just like wild whales."  Unfortunately, for SeaWorld, this is not what we see with captive killer whales & their spin doesn't withstand simple scrutiny.  

The mechanism of teeth wear in offshores is different from what is occurring at SeaWorld. Captive orca fracture their teeth acutely on steel bars; and also grind them down (stereotypy) on the concrete walls & corners of their enclosures; usually out of boredom or frustration. This is neurotic behavior or aggression, NOT feeding behavior. To make the point, consider the difference between fracturing teeth with a steel hammer or pipe (comparable to jaw popping on a gate), vs wearing teeth gradually over many years. SeaWorld, once again, uses slick language & generalizations to conflate two different issues to make captivity appear more palatable to the public. It's the same method they use with collapsed dorsal fins, here. They want the public to believe that many whales in the wild have poor dentition and collapsed doral fins because it makes their collection seem "more normal" and less impacted by the shortcomings and stress of captivity. 

Katina's teeth, above, have been knocked or chipped off, not worn downThis happens, in a rage, when she chomps her jaws together while charging a gate; the whales occasionally miscalculate and end up biting down on the horizontal steel bars of the gate, chipping mostly front teeth. Look for this pattern in captive orca photographs available online, such as this example on Flickr.  "Jaw popping" is an aggressive behavior & in captivity it typically involves two whales facing off at a gate.  Due to this totally unnatural situation involving hybrid animals, often unrelated, and in small spaces, we can say that the broken teeth exemplified here is a direct by-product of captivity. This is not attributable to normal social behavior for this species (such as the feeding behaviors of the offshore orca). Lastly, notice the timeline and compare Katina's teeth from 1995 to 2013. This Blackfish MGU radio interview, here, describes jaw popping.  

SeaWorld SOAP Note by Dr Christopher Dold

For the first time at VOTO we have a complete medical record, or "SOAP Note," from SeaWorld, specifically from Dr. Dold.  It describes the damaged teeth in the male killer whale Ikaika (aka "Ike"). Remember, this damage is anthropogenic. In the situation below, on Tuesday 11/14/2006, trainers discover that Ike has two abscessed teeth by noting that his upper jaw was warm to the touch. The chart also states that Ike is(was) scheduled for transport to Marineland just four days later, on Saturday, 18 Nov, 2006. This likely put SeaWorld in a tough position, at the time. 

Here's what we now understand about SeaWorld, Ike & Dr Dold from his SOAP Note: 

On Nov. 14, 2006, Ike had two abscessed teeth. Pulp was protruding from this third left mandibular canine and pus was oozing from the second one. 

This medical situation was occurring a few days prior to his scheduled departure to Marineland. Dr Dold, in his own words, used topical Bupivicaine & injected Lidocaine (medium and short acting anesthetics, respectively) for attempted pain control. Using a hand held drill bit, Dr Dold drilled Ike's teeth, performing a pulpotomy.  According to the chart Dr Dold, "Cored affected pulp cavities with hand drill bits." He remarks that the animal "held for full procedure under voluntary control." Which probably means that Ike was food deprived to some degree, as captive killer whales do not enjoy having their teeth drilled (as a general rule). 

A comment on Ike's bloodwork is made: "Hematology is unremarkable but FBGN is mildly increased." It is unclear what FBGN strands for, at this time, but it could be levels of fibrinogen, a blood factor related to Ike's ability to clot (possibly useful in an animal experiencing drilled teeth.) Another blood product, "SAP is chronically low." This may refer to Serum Alkaline Phosphatase, which, if so, may point to relative malnutrition or protein deficiency. Finally, the last lines of the SOAP note are Assessment & Plan. 

NOTE: If anyone knows for sure what FBGN or SAP refer, please message us on Twitter @Voice_OT_Orcas

ASSESSMENT: Abscessed pulp cavities on left rostral mandibular teeth. 

PLAN (from above but without abbreviations): Dispense cephalexin at 14 grams by mouth three times daily for 7-10 days (for a total daily antibiotic dose of 42 grams or 1.48 ounces). Pursue additional drilling tomorrow to increase the diameter of the [tooth bore] hole to approximately 1/4 inch

In the end, Ike was sent to Marineland several days after his pulpotomy procedures, and on nearly 1.5 Ounces of daily antibiotics. Ironically, SeaWorld went to court to get him back, citing poor conditions at Marineland in 2011. Those court documents, including his medical record, are now shedding light on some very concerning aspects of killer whale captivity.