Killer Whales on Valium: Common Practice?

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Valium was given to whales at SeaWorld to keep them calm, court documents reveal, but use of such benzodiazepine drugs on marine mammals is not always illegal and turns out to be very common at both aquariums and rescue facilities, a Discovery News investigation has found.

A "Clinical Notes Report" presented to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in a case between SeaWorld and Marineland documents that a veterinarian at SeaWorld gave diazepam (Valium) to at least three orcas in 2006 in order to control their behavior. The vet mentions that "we will try to mellow him," in reference to a male orca named Ikaika.

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In response, SeaWorld sent the following statement to Discovery News:

"Benzodiazepines are sometimes used in veterinary medicine for the care and treatment of animals, both domestic and in a zoological setting. These medications can be used for sedation for medical procedures, premedication prior to general anesthesia, and for the control of seizures. The use of benzodiazepines is regulated, and these medications are only prescribed to animals by a veterinarian. Their use for cetacean healthcare, including killer whales, is limited, infrequent, and only as clinically indicated based on the assessment of the attending veterinarian. There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care."

SeaWorld is a member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), a non-profit organization that accredits zoos and aquariums. AZA spokesperson Rob Vernon said that use of benzodiazepines on animals requires a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) certificate under the federal Controlled Substance Act.

"The Animal Welfare Act and associated regulations require veterinary care for covered species, which includes marine mammals," Vernon added, mentioning that there are other mandates established in the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994.

While it might seem surprising that captive marine mammals can receive Valium and other benzodiazepine drugs, there are instances when the drugs may benefit both the animals and their caretakers.

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Shawn Johnson is director of veterinary science at The Marine Mammal Center in California. The center is a nonprofit veterinary research hospital and educational center dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals – primarily elephant seals, harbor seals, and California sea lions.

Johnson told Discovery News that Valium is used at the center to calm down animals such as 500-pound sea lions that are "otherwise unsafe to handle during exams" and "small rescued harbor porpoises that are often really hyper" yet in need of immediate medical attention.

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