Thursday, 10 May 2012

Animals and drugs don't mix: Dolphins and Buprenorphine

Another sad article that I came across whilst at work today concerning the deaths of two dolphins at a marine park in Switzerland.

A nuclear submarine dolphin

Housed at the Connlyland Marine Park in Lipperswil, Switzerland, the two dolphins died in November of 2011. Some days prior to the deaths, bosses at the zoo allegedly rented out an area of the marine park, adjacent to the dolphin training pool, to a weekend-long rave.

Initially, there were reports that the dolphins had died as a result of the loud music from the party, which was thought to have damaged their sensitive auditory structures, hindering their hearing and sonar ability. Indeed, local animal rights groups recorded sound levels outside of the park during the rave, and apparently recorded sound levels at over 100 decibels. However, Swiss prosecutors instead considered levelling charges of negligence against personnel at the zoo, as they considered the possibility that the deaths had been due to improper administration of antibiotics.

A recently leaked toxicology report has, however, possibly shed new light on the deaths of the dolphins, known as Shadow and Chelmers. Apparently, significant quantities of buprenorphine, a semi-synthetic opioid, were found in the dolphins' urine. As an aside, the toxicologist in me,feels that it should be pointed out that, as buprenorphine undergoes significant first-pass metabolism, it is more likely that they found nobuprenorphine in the urine samples submitted for analysis.

It would then appear that the deaths of the dolphins was instead due to an overdose of buprenorphine.

Buprenorphine: not dolphin-friendly...

As mentioned above, buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic opioid that has a range of clinical uses, including the treatment of opiate addiction and mild to chronic pain. It is, however, also being increasingly used as a recreational drug, and administered via insufflation. This unfortunately raises the possibility that one or more party-goers present at the rave may have administered buprenorphine to the dolphins.

According to one of the zookeepers at the marine park, Nadja Gasser, the dolphins suffered a horrific and slow death:

“He was drifting under the water and was clearly in trouble and so we jumped into the water. We tried to hold him. He was shaking all over and was foaming at the mouth... The death went on for over an hour. It was horrendous.”

Dutch marine biologist, Cornelis van Elk, commented that opiates are highly dangerous to aquatic mammals:

"The reason is that dolphins are conscious breathers, which means they actively decide when to come to the surface to breathe... Drugging them with opiates causes this part of the brain to switch off, with fatal consequences."

An editorial by Elizabeth Batt, from Digital Journal, makes a rather astute comment regarding the unfortunate deaths of these animals:

"At the end of the day, it matters not whether the dolphins died from environmental noise, antibiotics or as it now seems likely, a heroin substitute. They died from negligence at the top level. Despite the warnings and the concerns... park bosses and Veterinary Officials went ahead and allowed the rave anyway. And two dolphins at Connyland Zoo suffered indescribable painful deaths..."

It is truly a pity that events unfolded in the manner that they did. It seems unbelievable that a zoo/marine park would approve to have a rave next to the exhibit next to any animal, and to not have any protections in place to prevent stupid/inebriated/intoxicated reveller/s from interfering with the animals seems downright bizarre... Well, let us hope that this doesn't happen again.

Until next time,