The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration holds an inventory of the dolphins at The Mirage and cause of death for those that died. These records include the following tragic details:
– Rascal, aged 3, died in 2004 (cause unknown)
– Pablo, aged 10, died in 2005 from a rare fungus in the lungs
– Darla, aged 18, died from chronic pancreatitis
– Squirt, aged 15, died from a respiratory ailment
– Picabo, aged 11, died suddenly from a mysterious internal tear in the stomach
– Bugsy, aged 3, died from a pulmonary abscess
– Sigma and Banjo died from heart failure, both aged about 32
– Sage, aged 11, death unknown
– one dolphin listed as deceased was stillborn and another 2-week-old calf died suddenly from pulmonary oedema.
The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act should have protected dolphins from exploitation in the USA, but, at the behest of the theme park industry, Congress granted an exemption in respect of marine mammals in aquariums on the dubious pretext that display of a protected species is an educational tool. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is nominally responsible for establishing education programs and a code of conduct, but the industry is essentially self-regulating.
As it happens, the dolphins at The Mirage receive first-rate medical care from an on-site veterinarian. They are constantly monitored and examined for potential problems. The facility also has a breeding programme. But, as Dena Jones, programme manager for The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), says: “It’s not simply a case of bad luck that that number has died. The people (at The Mirage) may be well-meaning and the facility may be well-run, but these type of captive environments can’t reproduce conditions in the wild. If these dolphins are being well-treated, we’re glad to hear it, but there’s still no comparison to their real environment.”
Being captured in the wild is a traumatic and stressful experience for marine mammals. The number of dolphins that die during or shortly after these operations is never revealed in dolphinariums. And what about all the flips, hoop-jumping and tailwalking antics people enjoy at The Mirage pool and elsewhere? Training dolphins is not a very sophisticated business. It’s simple – their food is rationed until they comply. They perform their tricks because they are deprived of food and are intelligent enough to understand primitive bribery.
Even humans aren’t safe at facilities like these. Orcas have never killed a human in the wild, but since 1991 four people have died at the hands of orcas in captivity. Last year there was the high-profile killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by an orca named Tilikum. .More than half of marine mammal workers and trainers have been injured by the animals they work with. Many of the injuries are classified as severe.
It’s not about education, research or conservation. It’s about profit. The amount spent on serious conservation and research programmes is a tiny fraction of the income generated by facilities like the one at The Mirage. Simply exhibiting wildlife is not conservation. The “Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat” exists to attract tourists and make money. If a dolphin dies, it is simply replaced with another one. Most people would agree we have a duty not to treat animals brutally. If this is not strictly a violation of that duty, it surely sits uneasily with most people’s concept of right and wrong in the context of animal welfare. The plight of the dolphins highlights the need for the NMFS (and similar bodies worldwide) to properly fulfill its duties in oversight and regulation of marine mammal facilities.
And, the next time you’re tempted to buy a ticket to watch dolphins perform, remember – the smile is just a mirage.