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Four Captive Dolphins Die in Arizona within Two Years

| By Mark J. Palmer, International Marine Mammal Project
Topics: Captivity Industry, Dolphin and Whale Trade, Dolphins

Dolphinaris, a tricked-out swim-with-dolphins circus located near Scottsdale, Arizona, has been controversial since its opening in 2016.

Now, with the deaths of four bottlenose dolphins in the last two years, opposition is at fever pitch. 

Demonstrations are ongoing; at least one organization that supplied several of the dolphins has canceled their contract and asked for the remaining dolphins back; and the facility has “temporarily” closed, with the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture possibly conducting an investigation.

According to CNN, Dolphinaris’ General Manager Christian Schaeffer stated: "We recognize losing four dolphins over the last year and a half is abnormal.  We will be taking proactive measures to increase our collaborative efforts to further ensure our dolphins' wellbeing and high quality of life."

On January 31st, a 22-year-old male named Kai was euthanized, the cause of his decline still unknown.  Wild bottlenose dolphins can live up 40 to 50 years in the ocean.  Another male, Bodie, only 8 years old, died in September 2017 of a reported “rare muscle disease.”  In May 2018, Alia, only 11 years old, died of a bacterial infection, a common cause of death for captives, likely induced by stress and boredom from living in a small concrete tank and doing repetitive swims with customers day in and day out.  Kloe, also 8 years old, died in December 2018 of sacrocystis, a disease caused by parasites.

Swim-with-dolphins programs are particularly stressful for dolphins.  Disease can be transferred from dolphins to people and vice versa.  Participants have also been bitten and rammed by stressed dolphins in these facilities.

Dolphins do not belong in the desert.  In the wild, dolphins spend most of their time underwater, seldom rising to the surface for a short breath.  In captivity, the dolphins can’t stay underwater as easily, so the hot temperatures at the surface and sunburn can deplete the animals.  They are also exposed to exotic diseases brought into the tank with dust and wind, something that would not happen in the ocean. 

Dolphin Quest, which had supplied several dolphins to Dolphinaris, including Kai, has canceled their loan agreement and reportedly is asking for two other dolphins (still alive) to be returned to them.

Technically, the health of the dolphins is regulated by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), but the agency has yet to adopt regulations governing swim-with-dolphins facilities in the US after years of delay, despite pressure from environmentalists to produce such regulations.  APHIS’s inspections of Dolphinaris, which passed with flying colors, were clearly inadequate.

Dolphinaris, in addition to conducting a necropsy on Kai, has temporarily closed while claiming to conduct research on why these deaths are occurring.  But it is unlikely they will permanently close their facility, which rakes in plenty of dollars from tourists.

At Dolphinaris, a “land-based” dolphin “experience” is $59, while the swim-with-a-dolphin “experience” is $149 for 45 minutes.  The owner of Dolphinaris, Ventura Entertainment, is a Mexican-based company with five other swim-with-dolphins facilities in Mexico.   Dolphinaris is the only US-based facility the company owns.

Many organizations, including the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute, opposed the opening of Dolphinaris and other swim-with-dolphins programs.

IMMP is contacting APHIS demanding that Dolphinaris be closed down permanently.

These dolphin deaths show just how bad these facilities are – they should be banned altogether, with the dolphins retired to seaside sanctuaries, to live out their lives in peace, without having to “kiss” tourists and drag them around their sterile pools.



Photo of begging captive bottlenose dolphins by Mark J. Palmer/Earth Island Institute.



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