Individual treatment for ailing orcas? Veterinarians work on medical database

SAN JUAN ISLANDS, Wash. -- The world watched over the summer as a three-year-old orca calf wasted away. Multiple organizations and governments tried last-ditch medical efforts to save Scarlet, or J50, but they came up short.

Many orca in the critically-endangered southern resident population have been diagnosed with peanut head -- a sign of starvation -- in the past. Most, like Scarlet, don't make it.

"Unfortunately, right now we're much more reactive than proactive," said SeaDoc Society veterinarian Joe Gaydos. "I'd love to see that change."

SeaDoc Society is a nonprofit born out of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. It's trying to form a new medical database to diagnose and treat individual, ailing orcas.

The project is being modeled after a personalized veterinary approach used on critically endangered mountain gorillas in Africa.

"Both populations are highly endangered, where even saving one or two animals that are of breeding age, or are going to become breeders, could be very important to the entire population," Gaydos said.

With treatment help from the "Gorilla Doctors," also a UC Davis project, the mountain gorillas have rebounded. But a gorilla on the ground and a killer whale in the water are two very different patients.

"What we're learning is that we actually need to develop some new tools for diagnostics," Gaydos said. "With a mountain gorilla, we can take a blood sample from its arm once it's under anesthesia. For a killer whale, we can't do that. We might just have to be able to get the same information from a blow sample and those are the sorts of things that we're working on behind the scenes right now trying to develop those technologies."

Those technologies may come too late for J17, another southern resident now showing that peanut head. The Center for Whale Research's Ken Balcomb, who monitors the population, estimates she'll be dead by summer.

While veterinary care can't put a band aid on the bigger issues facing these orca -- a lack of food, toxins, and noise pollution -- Gaydos hopes figuring out how to treat a few sick ones in the meantime might keep this population from going extinct.

Gaydos said the database could only work with help and information from all of the organizations that currently study the southern residents.

Microsoft is also supporting the project.