Four dead dolphins bring “temporary” closure of barely two-year-old swim-with-dolphins attraction
SCOTTSDALE, Arizona––Already a target of protest before opening in October 2016, Dolphinaris Arizona, the newest U.S. marine mammal exhibition facility, is to be scene of yet another of many demonstrations on February 9, 2019.
This demonstration, though, will have a bite to it that online petitions signed by more than 100,000 people worldwide in 2016 lacked.
This will not be just because the protest, led by Dolphin Free AZ, is being promoted worldwide by Ric O’ Barry, the former “Flipper” trainer at the Miami Seaquarium who has spearheaded opposition to marine mammal captivity since Earth Day 1970.
Facility closing day before demo
Nor will it be just because Dolphinaris Arizona will be closed indefinitely on Friday, February 8, 2019, laying off about 40 staff and giving many activists hope that the barely two-year-old swim-with-dolphins on the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community reservation will never reopen.
Of the eight bottlenose dolphins that Dolphinaris Arizona began with, housed in a total pool area only half again the size of an Olympic swimming pool on a 35-acre, $20 million development site, four have already died.
“Rare muscle disease”
The first was seven-year-old Bodie on September 23, 2017.
Dolphinaris Arizona spokesperson Jen Smith announced initially that Bodie, had died from “a rare muscle disease.”
However, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration report on the death, obtained and released to media by “Advocates Against Dolphin Captivity in Arizona” Facebook page administrator Laurice Dee, specified that Bodie had died of a fungal infection.
Fungus among us
A spokesperson for the Animal Defense League of Arizona in November 2017 told Lindsey Reiser and Morgan Loew of television stations KPHO KTVK that this caused members of the organization to suspect that the actual cause of death was valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, a relatively uncommon fungal disease identified more often in Arizona than in any other state.
Dolphinaris Arizona spokesperson Smith then clarified that Bodie had actually died from mucormycosis, another fungal disease which in Bodie presented itself by attacking his muscular functions.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention [CDC] defines mucormycosis as “a serious but rare fungal infection caused by a group of molds called mucormycetes,” which “mainly affects people,” or animals, “with weakened immune systems and can occur in nearly any part of the body.
Mold, bacteria, parasites
“It most commonly affects the sinuses or the lungs,” according to the CDC, “after inhaling fungal spores from the air, or the skin after the fungus enters the skin through a cut, scrape, burn, or other type of skin trauma.”
“These molds live throughout the environment,” the CDC adds. But they rarely afflict heathy people or animals.
Alia, 10, succumbed on May 22, 2018 to what Dolphinaris called “acute bacterial infections that spread quickly throughout her body.”
Khloe, 11, died on December 30, 2018. Dolphinaris general manager Christian Schaeffer told media that Khloe had arrived from a Six Flags facility in California already suffering from sarcocystis, a parasitic disease most often passed from prey to predators.
Dolphin ate a bird?
A captive-born dolphin, like Khloe, might most likely be infected by eating a diseased small mammal, bird, or reptile who happened to fall into the water.
Sarcocystis weakens the host animal’s immune system, causing muscular damage and impairing the central nervous system.
The fourth deceased dolphin at Dolphinaris, Kai, 22, was euthanized on January 31, 2019 after a two-week illness, the nature of which is currently unclear.
Of note is that while mucormycosis, bacterial infections, and sarcocystis may all present similar symptoms, and could even all infect the same animal, if the animal suffered from a weakened immune system, they are distinctly different families of diseases.
The common denominator, among captive dolphins, might be stress, rather than exposure to any one particular pathogen.
Kai and two other dolphins were at Dolphinaris on loan from Dolphin Quest, founded in 1988 by marine mammal veterinarians Jay Sweeney and Rae Stone.
The first Dolphin Quest swim-with-dolphins facility opened in 1988 on the Big Island of Hawaii, and is noted for having hosted at least a dozen captive dolphin births.
A second Dolphin Quest facility opened in Bermuda in 1996, relocating from the Fairmont Southampton Princess Hotel to The Keep in the Royal Naval Dockyard, now the National Museum of Bermuda, after Hurricane Gert damaged the original dolphin habitat in 1999.
Dolphin Quest opened a third swim-with-dolphins site on Oahu, Hawaii in 2000.
The dolphin loans to Dolphinaris appeared to be the beginning of a lucrative partnership with the Dolphinaris subsidiary of Ventura Entertainment, a Mexican company which bills itself “The biggest and most influential parks and attractions operator in Mexico and Latin America, with nine brands, 14 facilities, two countries, and 165 different attractions,” hosting “more than 3.5 million guests per year, keeping the safest operations record in the industry.
“SunRiver Corporation hired Ventura Entertainment,” the Ventura web site adds, “for the design, development, and operation of seven mega parks in China.”
Many recently opened “mega parks in China” include dolphin exhibition facilities, but whether Ventura Entertainment is involved with any of them is unclear.
Dolphin Quest recalled dolphins
The Dolphinaris subsidiary operates swim-with-dolphins facilities at Barcelo, Cancun, Cozumel, Rivera Mayo, and Tulem, all of which claim to have been approved by the American Humane Association, which has operated in recent years more-or-less as a rubber stamp for animal use enterprises that pay for certification.
Three of the Dolphinaris Arizona dolphins came from the Mexican locations, including two of the four survivors.
But whether Dolphin Quest and Dolphinaris will be doing any further business is unclear.
“As of yesterday, “ Dolphin Quest announced two days after Kai died, “Dolphin Quest has formally terminated its animal loan agreement with Dolphinaris.”
“Animal health concerns not resolved”
Said Rae Stone, “In spite of their best efforts, the animal health concerns have not been resolved at Dolphinaris. We have a senior marine mammal specialist from Dolphin Quest onsite at Dolphinaris, who knows our remaining dolphins well and is closely monitoring them. They are bright, alert and in good condition at this time. We have contacted [the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates and monitors U.S. animal exhibition facilities] and are working with them as we move forward.”
The two Dolphin Quest dolphins left at Dolphinaris are reportedly soon to be returned to one of the Dolphin Quest locations in Hawaii.
“No planned end date” for closure
With only two dolphins left to perform and swim with paying guests, Dolphinaris Arizona announced a purportedly temporary closure on February 5, 2019, with “no planned end date.”
During the closure, Dolphin Quest promised, “A panel including veterinarians, pathologists, water quality experts and animal behavior specialists will examine the facility.”
The last two dolphins are to be “moved to another licensed facility,” yet to be named.
Most likely a panel of investors and accountants will simultaneously be examining the profitability of Dolphinaris Arizona, including in light of the continuing decline of SeaWorld attendance and revenues since the 2013 release of the award-winning documentary Blackfish, an exposé focusing on the orcas that are SeaWorld’s focal attraction.
More than 28 million people watched Blackfish on the Discovery Channel within a year of release, compared to total 2012 SeaWorld attendance of 24.4 million at marine mammal parks in San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando.
SeaWorld at the time envisioned that recently added swim-with-dolphins attractions at satellite facilities would restore profitability. Instead, just 20.8 million people attended the SeaWorld parks in 2017, the most recent year for which complete attendance figures have been released.
“Dolphins don’t belong in the desert”
“Our concern [about Dolphinaris Arizona] has always been twofold,” Animal Welfare Institute marine mammologist Naomi Rose wrote to USDA-APHIS on February 1, 2019. “First, dolphins don’t belong in the desert. The environment is simply inappropriate and inhospitable to these ocean creatures. Second, valley fever, a fungal infection, is prevalent in Arizona and we have expressed concern about the ability of the dolphins to handle this and other aerosolized pathogens.”
Continued Rose, “When Khloe died, [Dolphinaris Arizona] claimed she had a chronic illness. If this is true, we question why she was subjected to three moves in less than four years, the last to Dolphinaris. It is also inexcusable for her to have been used in swim-with-dolphin encounters if she had a chronic condition.”
“Who is to blame? Jay Sweeney,” says O’Barry
Said Ric O’Barry, “Who is to blame? As far as I am concerned, there is no question about it: It’s Jay Sweeney and his business partner Rae Stone.
“Sweeney in the past captured scores of dolphins in United States waters for the entertainment industry,” O’Barry charged. “Several of the dolphins at Dolphin Quest were violently captured from the wild, in the Gulf of Mexico. Sweeney was also involved in the trade in dolphins captured in Japan’s gruesome dolphin drive hunts. This has been documented in the film A Fall From Freedom.
“Both Sweeney and Stone are experienced marine mammal veterinarians,” O’Barry continued. “Both live in Arizona. Both know better than anyone that dolphins do not belong in the desert. They should have disclosed right away that confining dolphins to a concrete tank in Arizona´s Dust Bowl is playing Russian roulette with the dolphins’ so-called life. Their insatiable appetite for more money is what caused the four unnecessary deaths.”
Same desert surrounds the Sea of Cortez
But the Rose and O’Barry statements, and those of many other Dolphinaris Arizona critics, overlook that while “Dolphins don’t belong in the desert!” makes a catchy slogan, bottlenose dolphins and 33 other whale, dolphin, and porpoise species, including the highly endangered vaquita, have long survived in the wild in the Sea of Cortez, just 232 dusty miles to the south via Puerto Penasco, Mexico, surrounded by the same desert that stretches across the border into Arizona, including Scottsdale.
The Sea of Cortez, a breeding area for many whales and dolphins, among them bottlenose dolphins, in fact claims more resident cetacean species than anywhere else.
This famously inspired pioneering undersea explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau to call the Sea of Cortez “The world’s aquarium.”
Further, all four of the dead dolphins at Dolphinaris Arizona, all of them captive-bred rather than wild-captured, may have died from pre-existing conditions, that they had before they were flown to Arizona, albeit that continual close exposure to visitors at Dolphinaris Arizona might have triggered their abrupt declines. None of the dead dolphins, so far as is known, contracted or died from valley fever.
The confluence of deaths at Dolphinaris Arizona may simply be because so few captive-bred dolphins are available for sale at any given time within the U.S. or for import into the U.S., while U.S. capture permits are so rarely issued, that the only dolphins any new exhibition venue can obtain are those that rival exhibition venues are willing to sell or lease to them.
These dolphins are likely to be the oldest, sickest, least successful performers. Dolphins sent by one marine mammal park to another on breeding loan might be exceptions, but Dolphinaris Arizona insisted at opening that it would not have a captive breeding program.
High mortality rate to be expected
In short, a high mortality rate was to be expected among the dolphins that Dolphinaris Arizona was able to get, and the underlying problem was not so much that dolphins don’t belong in the desert as that dolphins just do not fare well in captivity, especially under the continuous stress of a swim-with-dolphins program––all points that O’Barry and Rose have long labored to make.
O’Barry responded to ANIMALS 24-7 that his statement “was really about putting a spotlight on Jay Sweeney. It wasn’t supposed to be about the details of dolphins in the desert. Details like mucormycosis will come out later. It’s about Sweeney and exposing his history with dolphins. It’s quite a story,” O’Barry said. “My thinking is folks will read about him, see him on TV, in the news, get to know who he is.
The real targets
“If that happens,” O’Barry finished, “those same folks will think twice before buying a ticket to one of his high-end dolphin shows. Our work is all about inspiring the general public to stop buying tickets to dolphin shows. An educated consumer is the dolphins best friend.”
Which suggests that the real target of the February 9, 2019 demonstration outside Dolphinaris Arizona is not actually Dolphinaris Arizona, which may already be dead in the water.
The real target is the 22 other U.S. facilities that still display captive dolphins, most of them in Florida, Hawaii, and California.