A killed Hero
Each year, dozens of marine mammals—including some 30 species of dolphins and whales, plus the dugong and the small clawless otter—are stranded on Philippine shores. Between 2005 and 2016, there were 692 such incidents documented by the Philippine Marine Mammals Stranding Network (PMMSN), which sends rescue teams and then initiates treatment and rehabilitation.
One of those stranded mammals was Hero, a male rough-toothed dolphin that was found in Calapandayan, Subic, Zambales, on April 9, 2015 (Araw ng Kagitingan or Day of Valor).
There are popular misconceptions that these stranding incidents involve animals trying to commit suicide, but the real story is that these animals strand because of human activities. To be blunt, they don’t kill themselves; they’re killed.
In the case of Hero and many other stranded mammals, dynamite fishing led to acoustic trauma or damage in the animals, which then adversely affected their navigational capabilities. (We tend to think of our ears only for hearing, but vertebrates, including humans, depend on the inner ear for balance. Vertigo, with symptoms like dizziness, results from a problem with the inner ear—a common problem among the elderly.)
Hero was treated by PMMSN members—Dr. Leo Jonathan Suarez and a team of veterinarians connected with Ocean Adventure in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone—and seemed to be recovering well. But on Nov. 8, they noticed that he was not eating and appeared to be in pain. He seemed to be retching, trying to vomit something from his gut.
Hero’s condition improved for a few days around the third week of November, but then he stopped eating again. A few days later, the vets saw him trembling, swimming erratically, and retching for about five hours, before dying. The dolphin died on Nov. 30, Bonifacio Day.
The vets performed an autopsy and found a piece of plastic in Hero’s throat. Down the esophagus, they found nylon and more plastic, all of which had ended up into a ball that obstructed the digestive tract. Hero had choked to death on human garbage.
It was not the first time the PMMSN found such garbage in stranded marine mammals. It’s hard to estimate how many of the mammals also ingest the garbage out at sea, and how many survive, or die. Other marine mammals strand because they get entangled in fishing nets and gear. Still others strand because they are ill, sometimes because of infections, other times because of chemical toxins from humans.
I listened to the report on Hero during a PMMSN conference held earlier this month in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. I attended mainly because the PMMSN is based in UP Diliman’s Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology, and I was asked to deliver a keynote speech and a paper as well. I decided to stay on because I was curious about PMMSN activities.
It was an eye-opener. Stranded marine mammals are an example of why we need to have more One Health efforts, linking human medicine, veterinary medicine, and, the most neglected, environmental health concerns.
Paper after paper delivered at the conference showed how our neglect of the environment affects human and nonhuman animals. On my first day in Vigan, Dr. Lem told me that he and his team were treating a stranded whale in Pangasinan for a respiratory infection, and were using ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic. I asked how they chose their antibiotics, and he said it’s actually been a problem with some of the mammals because they’re showing resistance to some of the drugs.
I was surprised. Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem now with humans because of misuse (over-prescription, self-medication). How could this happen with marine mammals?
Dr. Lem reminded me that the ocean is one large sink for human garbage and a host of chemicals from antibiotics to pesticides, and so it is not surprising that marine mammals are put in harm’s way as well. A paper read in the conference by chemist J. L. Bondoc talked about the human “cocktail of chemicals” that gets into the sea and affects marine mammals. She showed slides of the animals’ damaged livers, which were correlated with high levels of toxic chemicals.
My first degree was in veterinary medicine. I was trained to treat dogs and cats, cows, pigs and horses, even carabaos—all mammals—plus a few birds, mainly chickens. When I got to Vigan, the first person I was introduced to was Dr. Nestor Domenden, the director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in the Ilocos. The bureau was coordinating much of the work with the PMMSN, and had taken care of organizing logistics for the conference. It made sense that the BFAR was taking care of dolphins and whales.
I then met veterinarians, and more veterinarians, and then it hit me. Back in vet school—still in UP Diliman at that time—we had an informal boundary: Our college took care of mammals and our next door neighbor, the College of Fisheries, took care of, well, fish. In Vigan, I realized that vets are taking on an expanded list of potential patients—still mammals, but those found in the sea.
I’m signing up with the PMMSN and hoping to join one of its future training workshops, in part to show that senior citizens can still pick up new causes and skills. But really, this is just a continuation of my older advocacies. I’ve worked on environmental causes for many years, and in public health, so this isn’t something completely new. The vet skills will need some honing; I just had to ask them where one extracts blood from a dolphin (answer: a vein on the caudal or tail fin).
It’s my anthropology side that is most stimulated by the PMMSN activities. I delivered a paper in Vigan talking about how humans’ ability to care for other species—even willing to risk life and limb for them—is what adds to our definitions of humanity. Caring for dogs and cats is one thing; taking another step to care about dolphins and whales is a bit more difficult. But it’s happening.
In scientific conferences we usually find ourselves emotionally detached, dealing mainly with graphs and statistics. But the PMMSN conference was different: The papers tugged at our hearts’ strings, for example, when slides of butchered marine mammals were presented.
It was also encouraging to hear about how government patrols in the Ilocos had decreased dynamite fishing, which seems to have led as well to a decrease in the stranding of marine mammals. I was also touched to see a marine ambulance they had built, which the PMMSN hopes to replicate for the other regions. There are volunteers now all the way to Tawi-tawi.
I intend to write more about the PMMSN in the future. Interested in helping out? Do visit pmmsn.org.
Meanwhile, think hard about our garbage and how it might kill dolphins like Hero. It’s not just plastic bags and wrappers. The weekend after Vigan, one of my daughters wanted to buy balloons and I had to gently tell her what one of the vets had told me: The balloons don’t end up in heaven; some come back to the earth, others into the sea. I bought her a balloon anyway, and our day ended with the balloon safely inside the house.
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