AMSTERDAM (AP) — A Dutch court ruled Monday that a dolphin park that rescued a young killer whale named "Morgan" in 2010 can send it to a Spanish amusement park.
The ruling dashes the hopes of conservationists who wanted to reintroduce the animal (also known as an orca) into the wild in its native waters off the coast of Norway.
In a written ruling, Judge M. de Rooij said chances of the female whale surviving in the wild were "too unsure."
"Morgan can be transferred to Loro Parque for study and education to benefit the protection or maintenance of the species," she said.
A panel of experts assembled by the commercial dolphinarium in Harderwijk, Netherlands, where Morgan is currently living, argued that releasing the highly social animal would be tantamount to a "death sentence" unless she could be returned to her native pod, or family. They said she would be better off at Loro Parque on Spain's Tenerife island, which has four other orcas.
Opposing experts for the "Free Morgan" group said the dolphinarium was guided by financial interests, rather than concern for the animal's well-being, and that they will continue to seek Morgan's release.
"It's disgusting," marine biologist Ingrid Visser said of the decision.
Visser, who traveled from New Zealand for the ruling, had also laid the groundwork to prepare Morgan for release in the Norwegian town of Stoe.
"We are very satisfied with today's ruling, which is what's best for Morgan," said dolphinarium spokesman Bert van Plateringen. He said the cost of the rescue, upkeep and transfer of Morgan would be "upward of a million euros" (dollars) and that the dolphinarium would not profit from having had her.
He said the transfer would take place within several days.
Morgan was found starving and weak in shallow North Sea water off the Dutch coast in June 2010. She was estimated to be about 2 years old, weighing just 400 kilograms (880 pounds). By July of this year she was in good health and had more than doubled her weight.
International treaties prohibit the trade of killer 'whales' (which are actually classified as oceangoing dolphins) without difficult-to-obtain exemption permits. Fewer than 50 orcas are held in captivity worldwide and the bulk of them are owned by SeaWorld, a subsidiary of U.S. private equity giant BlackRock.
Orcas are the largest species within the dolphin family and one of the world's most powerful predators, hunting in pods to feast on animals such as seals, sea lions and even whales. The killer whales' distinctive traits include sophisticated problem-solving and communicative abilities, and their formation of complex communities.
A female capable of breeding and introducing new genes into the pool of captive orcas is worth millions of euros, Visser said. Female orcas may live as long as 80 years, giving birth five or more times once they reach maturity.
"It is unfortunate that we continue to be manipulated by the power of economics over clear science and what is best for the welfare of this one individual killer whale," said French environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau in a reaction to the ruling.
The Harderwijk Dolphinarium is owned by France's Compagnie des Alpes. Loro Parque, owned by a German businessman, received its four orcas on loan from SeaWorld.
The Harderwijk Dolphinarium, which put Morgan on display after her rescue, has not disclosed financial details of her shipment to Loro Parque.
Past attempts to reintroduce orcas into the wild have a mixed record at best. The most famous case is that of Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the 1993 film "Free Willy."
Keiko was caught at age 2 near Iceland and spent many years in Mexico City. After 20 years in various marine parks, he was flown back to Iceland and released under lengthy supervision. He died in 2003 at age 26, apparently of pneumonia, after surviving two months on his own and swimming about 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) to Norway.
The most successful release was that of a young orca called "Springer," which had a story somewhat similar to that of Morgan. Springer was found off the coast of Washington state in early 2002 and successfully reintroduced to her pod in British Columbia, Canada, later the same year.
Experts agree that the less time the animals are exposed to humans and the quicker they are reunited with family or relatives (identified by their vocalizations) the better their chances of survival.
Visser said Morgan's chances are waning, but possibly still as much as "80 percent" with the proper care. She said in any case it was worth the risk to spare Morgan what Visser said would be a miserable life in captivity, forced to perform in daily public shows.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is currently pursuing a long-shot court case in the United States that equates orcas with people and says their working conditions violate the 13th Amendment ban on slavery. SeaWorld says the suit is baseless.
Visser said Morgan's best hopes for release now lie with Spanish courts or the Norwegian government petitioning Spain for her release.