Dutch Court Hears Fight to Move Orca to Sanctuary

Morgan in 2010 at the Dolfinarium in the Netherlands. (Photo via the Free Morgan Foundation)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – A New Zealand marine biologist and a Spanish sea park returned to a court in the Netherlands on Wednesday for the latest hearing in the case of a female orca named Morgan, who activists say has been mistreated and bullied by other whales while in captivity.

The parties appeared before the highest Dutch administrative court, the Council of State, to argue whether Morgan’s transfer to the Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain was valid, given that she became pregnant while under the park’s care.  

Morgan, a malnourished female orca, was found off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010. She was transferred to the Dolfinarium in Harderwijk, the Netherlands, where she was rehabilitated. However, a team of experts determined that she could not be released back into the wild and the Dolfinarium did not have adequate facilities to house her for the long term.

A suitable home was found at Spain’s Loro Parque. “The group composition and habitat of the orcas on Tenerife perfectly matched the needs of this young orca,” Dolphinarium director Marten Foppen said.

The transfer of an orca requires a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, permit. The application was initially granted by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, but the animal rights group Orca Coalition sued the government, claiming it was possible to release Morgan back into the wild. A judge sided with the group and ordered the government to set up an independent commission to evaluate Morgan’s future.

The commission’s investigation determined that Morgan’s transfer was legal and she was moved to the Spanish park in November 2011.

The Orca Coalition appealed several more times and lost. The Free Morgan Foundation, another animal rights group abbreviated as FMF, took over the fight in 2013.

Wednesday’s hearing marked the 10th time the groups have appeared before a Dutch court.

The FMF filed a complaint in 2016 with the CITES authorities in the Netherlands, arguing the transfer was invalid because Morgan was being treated poorly in Spain – specifically that she was being bullied by other orcas. Video surfaced that summer showing Morgan beaching herself during a performance. National Geographic reported that this was abnormal behavior.

That complaint was rejected by the Dutch courts.

In December 2017, Loro Parque announced Morgan was pregnant. It’s unclear how she became so. The FMF claims this is in violation of the CITES permit, though Spanish CITES authorities claim it is permissible.

Wednesday’s hearing centered on whether the original transfer agreement allowed Morgan to be used for breeding purposes.

“This is about more than just Morgan. It has widespread implications for the EU,” Dr. Ingrid Visser, a marine biologist from New Zealand who co-founded the FMF, said before the Council of State, referring to the European Union.

Loro Parque argues that although it isn’t precluded from breeding Morgan, she became pregnant of her own volition. She gave birth to a calf last year.  

“She’s in such a good state at the park, she choose to mate,” said Dr. Javier Almunia, the director of the park’s foundation.

Both sides agree that Morgan can no longer be released into the wild, as the Orca Coalition had first hoped. Now the FMF wants her moved to a sanctuary.

Morgan is the only wild-born orca in captivity in Europe. It’s no longer legal to capture orcas in the wild for commercial purposes.

“She’s very special,” Visser said.

A decision is expected from the Council of State in six weeks.

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