22 Sep 2021

DOC was advised to euthanise orca calf Toa, documents reveal

7:54 pm on 22 September 2021

The Department of Conservation was told by overseas experts it should euthanise orca calf Toa just days after it became stranded on the rocks in Plimmerton.

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Orca calf Toa. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The baby orca that stole the hearts of New Zealanders was looked after for 12 days before he died naturally.

He was found by two teenagers caught in the rocks near Plimmerton, north of Wellington in July, sparking a desperate attempt to reunite the killer whale with his pod.

New documents released by the Department of Conservation (DOC) today reveal the cost of caring for Toa totalled nearly $130,000.

Thought to be aged between two and six months old, he had not yet been weaned from his mother.

His vulnerability led to overseas experts advising the DOC to euthanise Toa just days into his care.

DOC director of operations for the lower North Island Jack Mace said it was a tough call to make.

"We had a range of advice, we had some international experts saying that the best option would be euthanasia that the likelihood of reunification was low," Mace said

"But we also had experts saying that there was a possibility of a successful reunification and the New Zealand orca are critically threatened - there's only about 200 in the world.

"So, on balance, we decided it was better to keep the option of reunification open while the calf was still stable."

Mace said euthanasia was not off the cards - but it was not their first choice.

"We had a really clear agreement from all parties, with DOC obviously being responsible, that if we saw a serious decline in the welfare of the calf, that we would move to euthanasia, and we had a very good team advising us and monitoring the health of the animal throughout the whole operation."

But Massey University marine biologist Professor Karen Stockin said the writing was on the wall in those early days.

"By the time those expert opinions were starting to come in, it was very clear, as you can see in those documents, what the general consensus and concerns were about the chances of survival and the increased risk of the orca's welfare being compromised and what that meant for Toa," Stockin said.

The main goal in such situations was always to preserve life - but sometimes an animal's welfare was more important, she said.

"We have very clear guidance around animals, when they strand, if they're that young that they are not weaned and they're not independent.

"They are they are no different to any guidelines in any state of Australia either, around the fact that euthanasia is typically considered the first option."

The $130,000 cost of caring for Toa was comprised of operational costs, personnel and salaries.

On the streets of Wellington today, people told RNZ they had mixed feelings about the sizeable sum.

Mace said it was a justifiable amount, as it was the first time DOC had tried to reunite a young, unweaned calf with its pod.

"I think it was worth it ... these animals are critically threatened and on balance, we considered it was worth pursuing.

"Half of that money was on operational costs, the other half was staff salaries which would have been spent on other work activities."

Toa died on 23 July after rapidly deteriorating and having trouble breathing.

DOC was going to make a decision to euthanise the calf the following day, but needed to get iwi as well as orca expert Ingrid Visser on side.

Stockin sad there was a lot to learn from it - including on public expectation.

"The longer this process went on, the more invested in the higher the expectations of the public really grew," she said.

"And that obviously then became quite a difficult situation to then manage."

Mace said DOC was still reviewing how the operation went and would use the lessons to better prepare for next time.

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