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Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores mourns loss of sand tiger shark Jolene

The veterinary team at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize a sand tiger shark December 8. The decision came after two years of treatment and monitoring, according to a release from the aquarium.

“This was not a decision we made easily. You could see it on the faces of each person and hear the enormity of the situation in the questions and statements each person made when we gathered to discuss her situation,” said Liz Baird, director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. “At the end of the day, it was important for us to look at her overall health and quality of life.”

Animal care staff had been caring for Jolene, as she is affectionately called by staff, since 2010 when the now roughly 12-year-old shark came to the aquarium after she was collected from pound nets in Norwalk, Connecticut.

“Caring for more than 4,000 animals is an enormous responsibility,” stated the press release. “Caring for sick animals can be even more challenging. Make that animal a 400-pound female sand tiger shark, and it becomes an even more intricate and difficult task.”

“About two years ago we started noticing bumps and lesions on Jolene’s flanks,” said Emily Christiansen, North Carolina Aquariums Division veterinarian. “We decided we needed to get a closer look at what was going on.”

In December 2018, the team used an Aquarium Vet Shark Bag, a device used to bring large aquatic animals into the acclimation pool of the Living Shipwreck. This device is made of a see-through material which is barely visible to the shark. When the animal is safely inside the bag, divers then swim the device to the surface where the shark is treated by the animal care team inside an acclimation pool attached to the larger habitat.

Historically, staff members would use safety sticks to try to convince sharks to swim into the pool. This was extremely slow and often times not effective, according to the aquarium. The new method was faster, safer and proved to be less stressful on the large shark.

“Our first time in with the shark bag was interesting, and we missed getting Jolene to swim into the bag. We had to go back to the acclimation pool to create a better plan,” said Clint Taylor, North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores husbandry curator. “The second and subsequent attempts proved to be much more successful, and we were able to safely get Jolene in for an exam.”

While in the smaller acclimation pool, Jolene is rolled upside down. This is known as tonic immobility and puts the shark into a sleep-like state, stated the aquarium.

“There she was provided oxygen by continuously delivering moving water over her gills,” stated the release. “She was also closely monitored by several staff while the veterinarian team worked diligently to collect samples, administer medication and conduct an ultrasound exam of her internal organs.”

“We were hopeful to find some clue as to what was causing the dermatitis on her skin, but really found nothing conclusive,” said Christiansen. “We started her on antibiotics, additional vitamins and steroids to treat the symptoms.”

This method seemed to work for a while. However, each time the team began stepping down the amount of medicine Jolene was receiving, the shark’s rash came back, leaving the team looking at different options to better care for the shark.

“We have been adjusting her medications over the past two years and looked at a variety of scientific research to identify alternative treatment options for Jolene. Unfortunately, many of the tools we have for identifying disease in other animals aren’t very well defined for sick sharks,” said Christiansen.

The aquarium stated that while dermatitis might not sound like something serious, in sharks it is often an indicator of underlying health issues affecting other body systems.

The sharks are conditioned to eat at specific locations inside the Living Shipwreck habitat and are individually fed using a long pole known as a “shark fork,” allowing staff to monitor food intake and ensuring each animal is getting proper nutrition.

Although she seemed to be responding, in the last few weeks Jolene has refused to eat more often than not, stated the aquarium. The aquarist charged with feeding Jolene had been trying throughout each day.

“I have provided numerous opportunities for her to feed as well as provided a variety of fish for her daily,” said Jeff Mcbane, an aquarist at Pine Knoll Shores. “Eating is extremely important to the overall health and welfare of an animal.”

Even with opportunistic feeding, Jolene’s health continued to decline. “After an extensive meeting with the husbandry care staff, veterinary team and aquarium leadership, the difficult decision was made to euthanize,” stated the release.

Jolene is now at N.C. State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology where she will undergo a necropsy by the NC Aquariums veterinary team “to hopefully provide more answers on her condition that will help animal care teams across the country better care for their large sharks.”

The results from these tests could take weeks or even months.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is five miles west of Atlantic Beach at 1 Roosevelt Blvd. in Pine Knoll Shores. The aquarium is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.ncaquariums.com/pine-knoll-shores or call 252-247-4003.

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