How To Euthanize A Whale

Some beached whales can't be rescued. Four scientists have developed a humane way to end their suffering.

Sometimes, whales end up where they shouldn’t. When a whale can’t be rescued and sent back to sea, it becomes at once a tragedy, an obstacle, and a potential health hazard. Craig Haims, an aquatic wildlife veterinarian with North Carolina State University, partnered with three marine mammal experts to figure out the best way to euthanize a whale.

Because whales are so large, determining the appropriate lethal injection dose is difficult. And because scavengers will eat the dead whale’s body, the wrong drug could kill the scavengers too, and then seep into the marine environment.

The solution: Euthanasia is delivered in two parts, each through custom-built needles. First, a nearly foot-long needle goes into the whale’s muscles to deliver a cocktail of painkillers and sedatives, which will calm the animal and minimize danger to the people administering the euthanasia. Once the whale is calmed, the team injects salt (in this case, potassium chloride) directly into the whale’s heart, using a needle over 3 feet long. The salt stops the heart, and because it is a salt, poses no risk to scavengers feasting upon the whale.

The findings were published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases this month.