SeaWorld's body count and the DA's blood draw

Sink or swim

For the annals of unfortunate headlines: A beluga whale died during a “visit” to SeaWorld San Antonio this weekend. It makes the residency sound voluntary, first of all. Worse, we couldn’t get the image of whale-sized turnstile tragedy out of our heads.

A better visitation scenario: 3,000 pounds of lovely flubba plop over the gates, sack upon sack of dry popcorn are sucked down, followed by some good-natured pranks pulled on the resident sea lions.

But Nico had none of that, and his death is a real tragedy. Captured by Russian crews out of the White Sea decades ago, he wound up languishing in a Mexico City amusement park until 2005, where he was spotted by Georgia Aquarium’s Chief Veterinary Officer Greg Bossart.

“It really was a rescue operation,” Bossart said of relocating Nico to Georgia. “He was in a substandard facility and very unhealthy.” Nico was recently transferred to SeaWorld San Antonio with two other belugas to wait out renovations ongoing at the Georgia Aquarium. While we don’t yet know why he died on Saturday at the age of 25, we know he is not alone. In all, 11 beluga whales have died in Northwest SA since the oceanic edutainment park opened in 1988.

No names are listed on the official Marine Mammal Inventory Report that catalogs them. The spreadsheet contains only an Animal ID number, date of death, and cause. It was “cardiac arrest” for the wild-caught female who died in the summer of 1995; “acute renal failure” took another wild-caught female the next year; “acute bacterial pneumonia” was blamed for the death of a captive-born female at SeaWorld last summer.

The iconic “Shamu” hasn’t fared much better. Among the number of performing orca whales that have cycled through the job, seven “false” and “true” killer whales have died at the local marine theme park, according to data provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Causes of death include severe hemorrhaging for a six-year-old female in 1999; intestinal tract obstruction for a female orca in 2002; and “acute necrotizing encephalitis” in the case of 2-year-old “Halyn” in 2008.

Naomi Rose, a marine biologist with the Humane Society, blames captivity. In an interview a few weeks back, Rose said that while dolphins live equally long in the wild as they do in captivity the same is not true for species like orca whales.

“Female orcas often live to be 60, 70, 80 years old,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of females that should be 50 by now, but they’re dead. … It’s very clear they live much shorter in captivity.”

Rose could not be reached for a followup call specific to belugas. However, among the wild-caught belugas at SeaWorld, the average age at death is about 20 years old. The captive-born belugas that have died at SeaWorld tended toward 2 and 3 years of age. Beluga whales on average live between 20 to 30 years in the wild, Bossart said. And, yes, it’s 5:01 p.m and we’re still waiting on an interview with SeaWorld staff regarding these numbers.

However, Bossart said in Nico’s case: “He was always at risk, because he had suffered so much health issues in Mexico City. … Those things eventually catch up to you.”

End game?

Axes or swords? The chatter this week regarding erstwhile nuclear-plant suitor CPS is whether top officials at the City-owned utility will be allowed to fall on their swords or if a public hanging is in order. It’s been a week since City Council members first became aware that Toshiba had elevated its cost estimate for two planned, formerly $13-billion nuclear reactors by as much as $4 billion. As the news leaked only two days before members were poised to drop $400 million more on the deal, there are some understandably soured grapes in the Council bunch.

Now, even the most pro-nuke Council folk are expressing if not enthusiasm for dumping nuclear an openness to exploring alternative paths. And Mayor Julián Castro is plain on the matter: $17 billion is not affordable.

Castro tells the QueQue that he is preparing a policy response intended to bring “an infusion of transparency” to the utility. From the heads-will-roll department, he offered: “There’s no question folks should be held accountable.” The Mayor placed CPS Energy Board Chair Aurora Geis in charge of researching the breakdown in communication and said he expects “quick results” from the investigation. Geis didn’t return a call seeking comment from an increasingly skeptical QueQue.

Castro is also hoping the transformation of CPS will impact the tech culture.

“CPS needs an infusion of transparency and an appreciation for the new energy landscape and embracing of it. … If the facts require us taking Option B, we’ll take Option B,” he said. Behind that door is expanded natural gas, amped-up efficiency, and increased commitments to renewables. And we only spent $276 million on nuclear-expansion planning and paperwork to get there.

Fight to a draw

District Attorney Susan Reed, she of the car and driver, implemented another forced-blood-draw holiday over the Halloween weekend, during which the intoxilyzer room turned into a one-stop booking-and-evidence shop, with affidavits, warrants, and judges ready to sign off on them.

Thanks to Senate Bill 328, passed during the 81st Lege, the range of circumstances under which drivers can be forced to give a blood sample without a warrant has been expanded to included suspected DWI with a child passenger and several other categories. Previously only individuals arrested for Intoxication Manslaughter and Intoxication Assault could be tapped without a warrant.

But during the DA’s so-called No Refusal Weekends, any person arrested on suspicion of plain-old DWI who refuses the breathalyzer can be forced to give a blood sample based on a probable-cause warrant filled out and signed while you wait. Nurses are standing by.

Bexar County implemented the program in spring 2008, but already it’s being billed a success. Following blood-test results from this year’s Labor Day No Refusal Weekend, the DA’s office reported that “The test results obtained thus far prove that those who refused to provide a breath sample had an average blood-alcohol content of .19, more than twice the legal limit.”

In Colorado County in East Texas, it’s No Refusal 24/7, and City Attorney Ken Sparks credits the five-year-old program with a drastic reduction in DWI trials. “It’s been four years since we’ve had a DWI trial,” Sparks said, “simply because the evidence is so compelling there’s no need for a trial.”

Defense attorney Jamie Balagia, aka the DWI Dude (yes, a Current advertiser and frequent event sponsor), disagrees. It’s not that you can’t successfully challenge a DWI charge based on a blood draw; it’s just damn expensive.

“It’s more difficult to do a blood-draw DWI trial, if you do it right, than a major felony,” Balagia said. “Unless you have a lot of money, you’re gonna plead.”

Balagia also thinks the constitutional question wasn’t settled by the 1966 case Schmerber v. California, in which the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a man whose blood was drawn without his consent following a car accident.

“If the facts had been speeding, odor, and bloodshot eyes, there’s no way they would have upheld it,” said Balagia. He asserts that judges rubberstamp blood-draw affidavits based on assertions — odor, bloodshot eyes, and speeding — not even included in the National Highway Traffic Safety Association’s guide to the Visual Detection of DWI Motorists.

But Bexar County First Assistant DA Cliff Herberg says forced blood draws are “the wave of the future.” Jurors, especially in the age of CSI want evidence, and the officers’ word will not carry the day.”

So are full-time forced blood draws coming to Bexar?

“Judge Reed wants it tomorrow,” Herberg said. But even though the County now owns its own GC/MS machine for screening samples, “there are tons of hoops you could never dream of,” including adequate staffing issues.

Sparks says he can’t produce any hard evidence that his county’s No Refusal program is a deterrent to drunk drivers; highway 70 and Interstate 10 cut through his territory on their way to Houston, so many of their DWI cases aren’t locals.

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