Killer whale dies from respiratory infection at SeaWorld

SAN DIEGO -- SeaWorld is in mourning Wednesday for the matriarch of the park's orca family.

Kasatka -- a mother of four, grandmother of six and great grandmother of two -- died around 8:15 p.m. Tuesday at SeaWorld San Diego's Orca Encounter facility following a lengthy treatment for a bacterial respiratory infection, officials said.

"All of us at SeaWorld are deeply saddened by this loss, but thankful for the joy she has brought us and more than 125 million park guests," said a SeaWorld statement.

Kasatka's health and appetite significantly declined over the past several days despite continually tailored treatments, according to officials. The 41-year-old killer whale's veterinarians, who are experts in marine animal medicine, and her caretakers "made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her to prevent compromising her quality of life."

"Today, I lost a member of my family. I have spent the past several years with Kasatka and was truly blessed to be part of her life," said Kristi Burtis, an orca behaviorist at SeaWorld. "Although I am heartbroken, I am grateful for the special time we had together and for the difference she has made for wild orcas by all that we have learned from her. I adored Kasatka and loved sharing her with millions of people. I will miss her very much."

The veterinary team will conduct a full post-mortem examination known as a necropsy to examine the extent of Kasatka's illness and how it affected her organ function, officials said. It may take several weeks before results are concluded.

"Nobody knows more about caring for killer whales than the professionals at SeaWorld," said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "...On behalf of the entire AZA family, we offer condolences to the dedicated SeaWorld professionals who have loved and cared for Kasatka throughout her life."

At this time, the SeaWorld team's attention remains focused on the rest of the orca pod to provide the care and attention they need, officials said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which for years has protested SeaWorld's keeping of orcas and more recently warned of Kasatka's declining health, said in a statement that "the dead bodies at SeaWorld are stacking up about as fast as its stock is falling."

"SeaWorld talks of `love' for her and her family, yet it made a business out of tearing her away from her family as well as ripping apart other bonded orcas and shipping them across the country, even separating Kasatka from her podmate in 1984," the statement said. "The `abusement' park didn't even respect this orca enough to give her a good-quality life, and it needs to send the remaining marine mammals to seaside sanctuaries before they follow Kasatka - - and the 40 orcas before her -- to the grave."

PETA planned to mourn the killer whale at noon outside the park.