SCOTTSDALE, AZ — An Arizona tourist attraction that allows guests to swim with dolphins has temporarily closed after four of its dolphins died in a year and a half — an unusually high and abnormal number, officials at Dolphinaris Arizona admit. The recent death of Kai, a 22-year-old male dolphin, has renewed activists’ calls for the permanent closure of the facility, which they say should never have been allowed to develop under the punishing desert sun.
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During the closure, a team of independent experts — veterinarians, pathologists, water-quality experts and animal behavior specialists— will try to unravel the mystery behind multiple dolphin deaths at the facility in Scottsdale, which only opened in 2016. Those investigating include federal officials Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an arm of the USDA that monitors the care of captive animals throughout the United States.
It’s unclear what action the agency might take, but it said in a statement that it is “working on the next course of action” regarding Dolphinaris Arizona.
Dolphinaris Arizona General Manager Christian Schaeffer de Leon said in a statement the staff is “heartbroken” by the death of the dolphins and recognizes that “losing four dolphins over the last year and a half is abornormal.
“We will keep taking proactive measures to increase our collaborative efforts to further ensure our dolphins wellbeing and high quality of life,” he said.
Kai had shown signs of declining health for about two weeks before his death on Jan. 31, the statement said. He was having trouble swimming and breathing, and he wasn’t eating well.
The medical team rallied to save the dolphin with a battery of tests, treatments and procedures, Schaeffer de Leon said, but ultimately “made the extremely difficult decision to humanely euthanize Kai, ensuring he would pass peacefully.”
A necropsy — the animal version of an autopsy — will be performed to determine the cause of death. Necropsies also confirmed the cause of death of the other three dolphins that have died at the facility: Bodie, 7, died in September 2017 of a rare muscle disease; Alia, 10, died in May 2017 of an acute bacterial infection; and Khloe, 10, died in December 2018 of a chronic illness caused a parasite called Sarocystis.
A Long Life — For A Captive Dolphin
Among captive dolphins, Kai lived a relatively long life. A longitudinal study last year that looked at captive dolphin deaths over 79 years found those that survived their first birthday lived an average of 12 years, 9 months and 8 days. In the wild, bottlenose dolphins live between 30 and 50 years.
One possible explanation for the early mortality of captive dolphins is their susceptibility to fungal and bacterial infections, according to the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project. That’s a common cause of death for dolphins in the wild, too, and after Alia’s death in 2017, Dolphinaris even referenced a National Marine Fisheries Service study that showed that.
But that’s not the full truth, according to the IMMP.
“That’s certainly true,” the organization said, “but obscures the fact that dolphins in captivity like Alia have access to expert veterinary care and antibiotics.”
So, why are dolphins that get a daily regimen of antibiotics to keep them healthy, drugs to keep them calm and don’t have to compete with other sea life for food dying at such a young age? It could be that captive dolphins are bored and stressed out, and that weakens their immune systems.
“Dolphins in captivity are under a great deal of stress. They live in very small tanks. In the wild, they would normally live with their families, but in captivity they are put into groups made up of strangers,” the IMMP said. “There is little for them to do except swim in circles and log at the surface for hours. They are often kept hungry so they will perform tricks for food.”
Dolphins Don’t Belong In The Desert: Critics
Attractions that allow people to swim with, kiss and shake hands with are controversial in general, but Dolphinaris Arizona is especially so because of its desert location.
Hundreds of people protested Kai’s death in a repeat of similar protests when other dolphins died, and even before Dolphinaris Arizona opened in October 2016, activists said dolphins don’t belong in the desert. The Arizona facility is the first in the United States for the company, which also has dolphin habitats in Cancun, Cozumel, Riviera Maya and Barcelo.
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo, an online publication focused on animal-rights issues, that exposure to fungal agents common in the desert threatens dolphins’ health. The relentless Arizona sun could also cause discomfort and additional health problems for the dolphins.
“The relentless exposure to UV radiation is not normal for them,” Rose told The Dodo. “Desert sun is particularly harsh. These tanks have no shade and they are very shallow, meaning the water itself does not filter out much of the UV radiation, even when the dolphins are below the surface.”
In tropical seas, even deseret coastal areas, dolphins can spend 70 percent of their time at depths where the worst of the sunlight is filtered out, Rose explained, but at Dolphinaris Arizona, swim in only about 10 feet of water and have no escape from the sun.
“It is not normal or natural for dolphins to be exposed to UV radiation in this way,” she said.
Even when dolphins are penned in the open sea, their behavior can change and they can be deprived of the chance to simply be dolphins, say critics of the internationally popular “swim-with-the-dolphin programs.” Swimming in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, where the programs are especially popular, has an almost magical appeal with tourists, but captivity can negatively change dolphin behavior, critics charge.
A former trainer told The Dodo that dolphins lived in miserable conditions at the two swim-with-the-dolphins attractions he’s worked at in the Caribbean. Not only were the open-sea holding pens excessively shallow, more than 40 dolphins were caged in three compact cells with floating debris from the sea, like nails and fish hooks.
“Because they didn’t have a vet or any type of veterinary care at [this particular] facility, the dolphins would swallow things, and there would be nothing you could do about it,” the former trainer said, speaking to The Dodo on the condition of anonymity. He said the pens were cleaned, but the odor of chlorine was so strong it often choked the trainers, and exposure to the chemical even caused some of the dolphins to go blind.
The former trainer told The Dodo some of the dolphins exhibited “psychosis,” a behavior that is not uncommon among marine mammals that are forced to swim in small pens all day — in some cases, these dolphins had as many as 10 performances a day in which they repeated the same motions and responded to the same signals. That made them dangerous to humans, the man said.
“They would get frustrated … and aggressive to guests or knock food buckets out of our hands,” he said.
More damning was the former trainer’s worry over a behavior he saw developing among the captive females. He said some stopped their babies from coming to the surface and breathing. Although not a scientist, his theory is that some sentient dolphins are euthanize their offspring so they won’t have to “live in captivity.”
Permanently Close Dolphinaris Arizona: Activists
Animal welfare organizations think the death of a fourth dolphin at the facility is reason enough for it to be permanently closed. The Animal Defense League of Arizona, the Animal Welfare Institute, Dolphin Free AZ, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, the Lightkeepers Foundation and Plea for the Sea have all lined up in opposition to Dolphinaris Arizona.
Dolphin Quest, one of the companies that loans dolphins to Dolphinaris Arizona, said it is severing its agreement and wants two of the remaining dolphins on loan — Noelani and Liko — returned immediately, television station KNXV reported. The other two are expected to be transferred to another, unspecified facility during the inspection and evaluation of Dolphinaris Arizona.
Danielle Riley, a spokeswoman for Plea for the Sea, said she is hopeful that “no more dolphins will be sent” to the Arizona attraction.
“We are hopeful, but until Dolphinaris comes out and says that we are permanently closing, we are going to be watching with a watchful eye,” Riley told the television station.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called the Arizona facility “a desert death trap for dolphins” and joined the chorus of voices saying it shouldn’t have been built in the first place.
“PETA urges the facility to do the only thing that’s right for the surviving dolphins: Move them at breakneck speed to a seaside sanctuary, as the National Aquarium is doing, rather than flying them to yet another marine park for no life at all in a concrete tank,” the organization said.
Baltimore’s National Aquarium plans to move its dolphins to a seaside sanctuary by 2020.
IMMP calls Dolphinaris “a dolphin prison,” and says that facilities like that expose dolphins to mosquito-born ailments and other conditions they would never encounter in the wild.
Moreover, the concrete edges and steel gates in their tanks “can cause cetaceans to break their teeth, resulting in serious dental problems – the pulp of their teeth must be drilled out and the resultant holes flushed out on a daily basis to prevent infections. “
“During drilling, the animals cannot be sedated, because whales and dolphins are conscious breathers — if they are put under, they stop breathing and die — so they endure these traumas fully conscious,” IMMP said.
Many organizations, including Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project, have protested the establishment of Dolphinaris, another dolphin prison.
“Dolphins and whales simply do not belong in captivity for our pleasure – they belong in the ocean,” IMMP said.
Lead photo: A dolphin plays in the water during opening-day events in October 2016 at Dolphinaris Arizona in Scottsdale. The attraction showcasing five bottleneck dolphins drew protests before its opening, both online and at the doors, at a time when the public opinion has become more negative toward animals in captivity. (AP Photo/Matt York)