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How Do You Cure A Sick Whale? Rub His Tummy, Caller Suggests

May 7, 1985

APPLE VALLEY, Minn. (AP) _ Big Mouth, an ailing beluga whale at the Minnesota Zoo, is attracting sympathy from the public, along with suggestions that its keepers try everything from aloe vera salve to rubbing its tummy.

Since the zoo announced last week that Big Mouth has anemia and a poor appetite, along with other problems, more than 100 calls have come in suggesting ways to treat the 15-year-old white whale, who earlier was given a 50-50 chance of surviving, officials said Tuesday. Belugas normally have a life expectancy of about 30 years.

″Some are offering advice, others want updates,″ said Nancy Gibson, the zoo’s public relations official. ″We really appreciate all the interest.″

Zoo officials also take some of the advice to heart - or to the stomach.

Jim Pichner, tropics curator at the zoo in suburban Minneapolis, said the tummy rub is being tried.

″We’ve rubbed him just about every place″ while trying to lift the whale onto a stretcher and holding him down to feed him and take blood samples, he said. Zoo officials say the 141/2 -foot whale weighed 1,800 pounds when last weighed in October, and they believe that it has lost 200 to 300 pounds since then.

″We rub him all over all the time to keep him calm,″ Ms. Gibson added.

Other callers have recommended coating the whale with a salve made of the aloe vera plant, often used as a home remedy for burns.

Pichner said ″two very nice people from Wisconsin″ left aloe vera samples and a manual explaining how to use it. The advice was forwarded to Austin McDevitt, the zoo’s curator of marine mammals.

Big Mouth has been sick on and off the past year with a lip lesion which apparently caused his anemia, Ms. Gibson said. The whale’s condition worsened April 30, but is now stable, she said.

In addition to anemia, Big Mouth has been suffering from a stomach inflammation and a respiratory inflammation, Ms. Gibson said. The animal is being force-fed eight pounds of fish, vitamins and liquids daily, she said.

″His behavior remains normal, but all his vital signs are still in trouble,″ Ms. Gibson said. She said an immunologist and a hematologist ran more tests on the beluga Monday.

Since his illness worsened, the whale has been taken off exhibit and kept in a holding tank with his female companion, Little Girl.

″Even with all these (poor) vital signs, he’s still going through some courtship behavior,″ Ms. Gibson said. ″They can’t figure it out.″

″His stomach problems have improved and his blood (count) is holding. It has not deteriorated anymore,″ she said. ″We’re cautiously a little more optimistic because he’s stabilized.″

Big Mouth was captured for the zoo in August 1977 in the Churchill River, a tributary of Canada’s Hudson Bay. He is one of only 12 beluga whales in captivity in North America.

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