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Beluga Rescue Collaboration: October 5 – 9, 2017

As reported by Carey Richard, Mystic Aquarium’s Supervisor of Cetaceans and Pinnipeds

OCTOBER 5, 2017: After a long day of traveling, I arrived in Alaska yesterday afternoon and drove to Seward via the New Seward Highway.  The views during the drive were something out of a movie! Snow-covered mountain tops everywhere, an area of water called Beluga Point, and just overall peace and tranquility.  After a two-hour drive from Anchorage, I arrived at my place of residence for the next two weeks –the home of Dr. Carrie Goertz.

Dr. Carrie was a veterinary intern from 1999-2000 at Mystic Aquarium, right around the time I was hired. Since then she has held prestigious positions at several facilities, including the Alaska SeaLife Center where she is now the Staff Veterinarian.

After quickly dropping off my luggage, Amy Komarek, Senior Human Resources Manager, drove me to the Center to get a lay of the land in preparation for my first shift the following morning.  As the beluga calf is currently under quarantine, I briefly met the team that was doing the 4 PM-midnight shift . I watched from a window overlooking the quarantine area as they conducted a feeding. After watching for a bit, it was time to head back to Dr. Carrie’s to get some sleep.  Best to be well-rested for my 8AM to 4PM shift with the calf.

OCTOBER 6, 2017: Today’s beluga shift was all about learning my role in the rehabilitation process.  I was paired with Steve Able from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, who has extensive experience with belugas and calves, as well as Dr. Todd Schmidt, Senior Veterinarian at SeaWorld San Diego.  Dr. Todd was also a veterinary intern at Mystic Aquarium during the early days of my career.  It’s like a big Mystic reunion!

The calf, while not out of the woods, has been eating well via tube feeding and showing great suckling response.  He is active in the pool and interactive at times with animal care staff which is helping us gain a better understanding of his normal behavior. This baseline behavior is critical for monitoring any changes throughout the day and overnight.

Today he underwent several diagnostic tests as the veterinary team carefully monitors any changes.  He had a blood draw, received some antibiotics via injection, and an ultrasound to visualize his internal organs.  Throughout the day he showed behavior consistent with what the care team has been seeing over the days since his arrival.

My 8- hour shift flew by!  I learned a lot and am looking forward to working with the amazing group of dedicated individuals who have left their jobs and families to fly across the country to help the staff at the Alaska SeaLife Center provide 24-hour care for this little guy.

I am so honored to be a part of this experience!

October 7, 2017:  The last two days have been all about consistency.  There are currently three teams of people caring for the calf over the 24-hour periods.  The teams have been consistent each day/night which has been beneficial to the calf’s care.  Having people work together for consecutive shifts ensures not only that they will learn the animal’s nuisances but will learn each other’s as well.  By today, Steve and I were a well-oiled machine.  We have a system for tube feeding that is working out well and encouraging learning on the calf’s part.

As we are on the 8AM-4PM shift, our stretch sees the most action in terms of veterinary care.  The vets listen to his lungs via stethoscope each morning around 8AM, he has an ultrasound soon after, and we weigh him around 11AM each day.  In addition to veterinary exams, we are feeding him every three hours around the clock, so our shift alone has 3 feedings.  Outside of these activities, we are doing a lot of cleaning and preparing formula for the next feeds and even getting a head start for the next shift’s needs.

Each morning at 8AM there is a staff meeting where a member from each ‘calf team’ is present to recount their experiences from their shifts. A plan is formulated for the day based on how the previous day has gone.  Each staff member from visiting institutions is encouraged to give suggestions about the calf and his daily routine.

While I’ve never been fortunate to work with a beluga calf prior to now, my experience with Mystic’s beluga whales has been integral in helping with this case. It’s such a great feeling to be a part of something so collaborative and to know that our job as animal care givers is so important as we strive to do everything we can to assist in the successful rehabilitation of the calf.

October 9, 2017:  Over the last two days we’ve seen some positive trends with the calf in terms of eating.  He is now taking his formula from a bottle; which mimics nursing more closely than the tube feedings.  It also illustrates that he is strong enough to latch on to the bottle (with little assistance from his caregivers).  As the Alaska SeaLife Center has stated in their posts, his activity level is up and down but he is swimming strongly at times and becoming a little bit more challenging to handle for his daily weights and ultrasounds; another sign that he is gaining some strength each day.

It has been well over a week since the original team of experts arrived from respectable facilities around North America to assist with the calf.  The time has come for some of them to return home to their families and the other animals that rely on them during their everyday jobs in the animal care field. Those of us who remain a little while longer will welcome new members to our team and continue to provide consistency over each of the 24 hours in the day for this special patient.  We are all cautiously optimistic that he will have a successful rehabilitation and we will continue to work collaboratively to provide for his every day needs.

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