Last Tuesday (May 23th 2017) a live stranded Harbour porpoise was found on one of the Dutch Wadden isles. The animal was an adult female, approximately 1,5 meters in length.
A live stranded whale is always an animal in need. But what kind of help can be offered and what is in the best interest of the animal? These are difficult questions, mainly because it is very difficult to make a good assessment of the situation and the animals health condition. In the Netherlands the SOS Dolfijn Foundation is the only organization that has the legal authority, extensive experience and knowhow to make these assessments and to decide what kind of help should be offered.
What are the options?
The options of help that can be offered can roughly be divided into 4 categories.
1. Letting the animal die without human intervention. In general, this option is the least suitable option and normally only chosen when other options can’t be used. For example in cases when helping the animal in any other way is too dangerous and life-threatening for the rescue workers on scene.
2. Direct release back in sea. This option is only possible and actually helping the animal, when it is assumable that the stranded animal has fair and good chances of surviving on its own when back in sea. Meaning that the animal should be in a rather good health-condition and the animal is no longer nursed. The assessment of the health-condition is crucial in this option. If the wrong judgement is made, the situation for the whale can be aggravated and the animals suffering will be postponed or expanded for a longer period of time.
3. Euthanasia. Worldwide whales can get stranded for a number of reasons. But a main reason, especially in the Northern part of Europe, is that the animal is sick and weakened. Over the past decades stranded porpoises and dolphins on the Dutch coast were mainly animals with serious health problems. Euthanising these sick animals is ending their suffering instantly.
4. Rehabilitation. This option is only, in Europe, possible for smaller dolphin species and porpoises. In the Northwest part of Europe there is currently no rehab facility available. Until January 2017 rehabilitation was offered to small cetaceans by the SOS Dolfijn team.
Although SOS Dolfijn has rehabilitated many small cetaceans in the past decade and is currently working hard to realise new rehab facilities for these animals, most countries worldwide restrict only to the first three options of helping a stranded whale (no interference, direct release or euthanasia). Rehabilitation of cetaceans is very expensive and demands a high level of knowledge and expertise. SOS Dolfijn is very competent by the extensive experience in rehabilitating the smaller whales. The rescue team consist professionals with 10 up to even 18 years of work experience.
At this moment SOS Dolfijn is seeking more financial support to restart their centre.
Stranded Harbour porpoise last Tuesday
Since the option rehabilitation is currently not possible, SOS Dolfijn is, like many other countries, limited to the other 3 options. When smaller cetaceans are found live stranded, for SOS Dolfijn the only options are ending the animal’s suffering by euthanasia or a direct release back in sea.
When the report came in about the stranded Harbour porpoise last Tuesday an assessment about the situation and the animals health condition was made. SOS Dolfijn decided that the animal was too sick and weakened for a direct release and that the best option was to euthanize the animal. The porpoise was already showing signs of weight loss and the skin was already very dry indicating the animal was maybe already beached for a longer period of time. Many worms were found on the porpoise, most likely coughed up from the lungs indicating a lungworm infection and possible pneumonia. Also the animal had several skins lesions that we normally only see on very sick older animals. An on scene vet euthanised the whale after our advice.
These assessments are based on a number of items such as several footage made on the scene, breathing measurements, interviewing persons that found the animal or which were on scene, years of experience and if possible a clinical check-up by a vet. Although stranded whales may still look very alive it is the subtle sings that reveal to the expert the actual condition the animal is in. The whale will probably still slap its tail but this no more than the expression of stress, fear or trying to escape the situation dealing with human contact.
First results necropsy
The first results of the necropsy performed by the University of Utrecht shows that again the experience of SOS Dolfijn was necessary to make a correct judgement of the situation. The Harbour porpoises was an adult female with a pneumonia and several lungworms were found in the lungs and blowhole of the animal. The porpoise was also suffering a skin infection and parasites were found in the ears, stomach and liver. Parasite infections in the ears can cause disorientation for whales. Further research will be done to determine more exact what caused the infection on the skin and in the lungs. Necropsy also revealed that the animal recently had been pregnant but was not nursing. This would indicate that the pregnancy was premature ended which could be the result of a weakened condition.
The employees and volunteers of the SOS Dolfijn foundation are stand-by 24/7 year round for whales in need. With love and compassion they are devoted to help the animals in the best possible way. But when it is assumable that a direct release back in to sea is only making the situation worse for the animal, other choices have to be made. These choices are sometimes difficult to make, but when it is ending (untenable) suffering of the stranded whale it is the most kind offer of help possible. And therefore the right thing to do!
In the past SOS Dolfijn has seen number of examples where young animals that still were nursed, were released back without their mother by unexperienced persons. Leaving them to die a slow but certain death. Or examples where the sick and weak whales were pushed back repeatedly and were found dead afterwards. These often well-intentioned actions, doesn’t help the animal.
Therefore we like to thank the persons on scene that were so kind to report this stranded Harbour porpoise to us last Tuesday and taking care of the animal in its last hours in the best possible way. Thanks to the report longer suffering was prevented.
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