News Column

Beached Whale Euthanized in Texas

Feb 28, 2013

Ryan Henry

A melonheaded whale that washed ashore Monday on South Padre Island was euthanized after officials determined its condition was no longer treatable.

Wildlife officials and volunteers, operating three-hour shifts in teams of two people, worked around the clock Monday through Wednesday morning to keep the whale afloat in a tank at the University of Texas-Pan American's Coastal Studies Lab at Isla Blanca Park. The hope had been to help the whale recover and return it to the Gulf of Mexico.

The effort to save the whale even included the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

However, the whale's health had continued to worsen and the attending veterinarian determined it would not survive, and was suffering. Officials decided to euthanize the whale Wednesday morning.

"In the last 24 hours, the physiological parameters of this animal declined drastically," said Dr. Tom deMaar, a veterinarian from Gladys Porter Zoo. "What that means is the respiratory effort and respiratory noise had doubled.

"The lungs were having to work harder to pull the air in. Another thing is that the odor of the bubbles had gone from slightly sour to fetid. That essentially means that the lungs are disintegrating, rotting, on the inside."

Euthanasia was the humane course of action, said Tony Reisinger, a marine and coastal resources expert for the Texas Sea Grant program. "It was suffering a lot," he said.

The beached whale was found Monday afternoon about a half mile north of the end of Highway 100 on South Padre Island.

The chance of beached whales recovering is slim, and in the case of this species, unprecedented.

"The melonheaded whale has never been successfully rehabilitated," deMaar said. "They come in and they're in such bad shape. They also do not lend themselves well to captivity or to this form of rehab environment because they are known to be both nervous and aggressive creatures."

The whale measured 94 inches -- almost 8 feet, deMaar said. Members of the species can live for 20 years, perhaps even 30, according to some estimates.

Melonheaded whales are the third most-commonly stranded sea mammal on the Texas coast, behind the bottlenosed dolphin and the pigmy sperm whale, Reisinger said.

This melonheaded whale was the second of its species to wash ashore on South Padre Island in recent years. The previous whale, found in 2007, also did not survive.

A post-mortem evaluation, known as necropsy, will be conducted in Galveston to determine why this whale washed ashore this week.

"The most common reason for melonheaded whales to be beached, that has been investigated, is that they get parasites in their ear," deMaar said. "That affects their balance and their ability to know where they're going, and also their ability to right themselves. So this animal is listing to one side, is breathing from the top of the head and not fully in control."

Water enters the whale's blowhole, and aspirational pneumonia can set in.

"This is not based on this animal," deMaar said. "I have no way to diagnose that without a post-mortem diagnosis."

Source: (c)2013 The Brownsville Herald (Brownsville, Texas). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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