A BACKSTAGE ATTRACTION
After spending 22 years in a sea pen at the University of Hawaii’s research facility at Coconut Island on Oahu, Kina the false killer whale is spending her golden years in a tank that animal rights activists say is cruel but that park officials believe is ideal.
Reality lies somewhere in the middle.
Suspicions regarding the legality of her transfer, the park’s intentions and the living conditions that the 40-year old female pseudorca would be kept in, sprung up when she was moved to the park more than two years ago. But Sea Life Park Curator Jeff Pawloski maintains that Kina is exactly where she should be.
“We knew that Kina was going to be a controversy, if we were to include her and bring her out to Sea Life Park, because of her history and how it would be perceived by the general public,” Pawloski said.
That history begins in 1987 when Kina was captured off of Iki Island, where Japanese fishermen were known to drive dolphins into coves and slaughter them to avoid the predation of squid and fish in the area. Kina was one of the lucky few selected to remain in captivity and was transported to an amusement park in Hong Kong.
In November 1987, Kina was purchased by the United States Navy and transported to Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay to take part in echolocation research, where she first worked with Pawloski. In 1993, she was moved to Coconut Island, where she continued to participate in studies as a part of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology’s Marine Mammal Program under Professor Paul Nachtigall. But the money ran out.
“We knew that Kina was going to be a controversy, if we were to include her and
bring her out to Sea Life Park, because of her history and how it would be perceived
by the general public,” said Pawloski.
“The federal government which is the primary funder, no longer had funds available for the type of work that I did,” said Nachtigall. “I could no longer bring in a million dollars a year required to care for the animals.”
With Nachtigall set on retirement, and no one willing to seek grant money in his stead, the university put the animals up for auction. Negotiations between the University of Hawaii and Sea Life Park started as early as 2013, according to Pawloski.
“Jeff Pawloski worked with me for nearly 20 years. He was Kina’s original trainer and caretaker. He had a special bond with her,” said Nachtigall. “He left the university and joined Sea Life Park. He is the curator. He offered to buy Kina and my dolphins through the state bidding process. No one else offered to buy her.”
Image courtesy of: Sea Life Park
Sea Life Park successfully purchased Kina, Boris, and B.J. for an undisclosed amount on June 1, 2015, and they were transferred from their sea pens at Coconut Island to the park in August later that year.
However, questions quickly arose surrounding the park’s intentions with Kina.
President of Animal Rights Hawaii Cathy Goeggel claimed that Sea Life Park acted illegally in their transfer of Kina.
“There has never been a proper permit for Kina,” Goeggel said. “We have filed (a request) under the Uniform Information Practices Act with the state, and they have not been able to provide us with proper documentation.”
Pawloski explained that the documentation that has come under scrutiny is a “permit to import” issued by the state’s Department of Agriculture and that the park obtained a federal permit from the National Marine Fishery Service before her arrival.
“Well, she’s already been imported. She’s already here. Her presence in Hawaii has already been approved and cleared in 1988,” said Pawloski. “The permits that are critical are the federal permits, and that was all approved.”
Animal-rights activists also questioned Kina’s living conditions. Natalie Parra, co-founder of the animal rights group the Keiko Conservation, has taken photographs and video recordings that show Kina, Boris, and B.J. in small, concrete tanks with little sun coverage as recently as September 2017.
“She doesn’t have any shield from the sun,” said Parra. “Those animals can be affected by the sun. They’re just usually spending a lot more time under water, and so they don’t have to worry about things like sunburns.”
Sea Life Park has had previous issues with providing its animals with proper protection from the sun. In 1994, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection branch cited the park for a lack of shade for its dolphins. Citations for the same violation were filed again in 2013, 2015, and 2016.
Parra also believes that Kina’s tank is too shallow for a deep-diving animal and that keeping her isolated isn’t healthy.
“There’s no way to argue that her being in a tub that doesn’t even appear to be as deep as she is long is humane,” said Parra. “For a very long time there, she was just completely alone, and I mean, cetaceans are extremely social animals, it’s a bit like solitary confinement.”
“There’s no way to argue that her being in a tub that doesn’t even appear to be as deep as she is long is humane,” said Parra.
Sea Life Park maintains the argument that its biggest goal is to provide Kina with the best care possible.
Pawloski explained that upgrades to medical instrumentation, more powerful ultrasound, and preparing Kina for a move into the park’s larger Dolphin Lagoon exhibit are a few steps the park is taking towards ensuring the pseudorca’s acclimation, well-being and socialization.
“We have an incredibly committed and dedicated staff,” said Pawloski. “These animals are looked at as another member of the family, this is never looked at as a commercial enterprise. This is not, ‘well how quickly is she gonna pay off what we paid for her,’ that was never it.”
Pawloski said that Kina is being introduced to individual dolphins from the Dolphin Lagoon. When he is confident that the animals are comfortable with each other, Sea Life Park plans to put her on display as an educational resource for residents and tourists alike.
“We intend to have narrative, interpretive sessions where people can come at certain times and be able to hear a little bit about Kina,” said Pawloski. “As well as if we’re doing the research work, they can hear her echo locating or perhaps observe the experiment that she’s doing.”
Pawloski believes that Sea Life Park is the best fit for Kina at this stage in her life because it offers her a secure, protected habitat, veterinary resources, a social dynamic she has never experienced, and Pawloski himself, who was the first person to work with Kina during her time with the Navy.
“I’m very aware of her unique idiosyncrasies. With only a few, a handful of pseudorcas ever really being in human care, I have been through all sorts of things with her before, and I really have a good handle on her,” said Pawloski.
But activists such as Parra and Goeggel aren’t going to back down. They would like to see cetaceans who cannot realistically be released from captivity be retired to sea sanctuaries, where they can live out the rest of their lives unperturbed.
“We definitely don’t think that they should all just be released into the wild, we understand that a lot of them were born in captivity,” said Parra. “But there is a better way to go about this. Either rehab and release the ones they can or retire them.”
Last year, members of the Keiko Conservation and Animal Rights Hawaii formed a resolution, HR136, which would ban the further breeding and transferring of cetaceans in Hawaii. The committee on Agriculture recommended that the measure be passed, with amendments on March 22, 2017.
“This year we’re going to be going after the bill and try to get it passed,” said Parra.
For now, Kina will continue to take part in research studies in her pen at the back of the Sea Life Park, while she slowly becomes acclimated with her future tank-mates from the Dolphin Lagoon.