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The dolphin lagoon at the West Edmonton Mall is finally empty

Howard jets away to Florida sunshine: WEM's last dolphin secreted away in dead of night

Elizabeth Ferguson

The Edmonton Journal

25th May 2004

The dolphin lagoon at the West Edmonton Mall is empty.

While Edmontonians slept, Howard the dolphin was in transit, heading south. The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is now basking in the sunshine of the Florida Keys.

WEM's last dolphin was secretly moved to his new home at Theater of the Sea, a saltwater lagoon in Islamorada, Florida, early Sunday.

The move started at 5 a.m. Saturday, when Howard was relocated from the lagoon to a basement pool. Sunday at 2 a.m., he was put on a stretcher, loaded into a custom box and driven to the City Centre Airport's Shell Aerocentre, escorted by the Edmonton city police. Howard was not tranquilized.

He was put on a Falcon 20 private jet and accompanied by a veterinarian. By 4 p.m. Sunday, Howard had arrived safely in his new home.

"It went without a hitch," WEM general manager Gary Hanson said Monday. "We're very excited about Howard's successful transfer."

Howard's trip cost between $40,000 and $50,000 US, paid by Theater of the Sea. The move required close to 100 people.

Last week, Hanson said he had no idea the 25-year-old dolphin was so close to being moved when it was announced Howard's transfer permit was expected to be issued Friday. Hanson said it was news to WEM, adding that a Saturday move would be very difficult, especially over a long weekend.

But on Monday, he said the move was done quietly for "the safety of staff and Howard."

"If we were to say that we were moving (Howard), for example, on Saturday night, there'd be throngs of media, fighting to get in the way of the vehicles that are travelling, there'd be throngs of people here trying to say their last goodbyes," he said.

"All we envisioned was a horror show, so we wanted to keep it as quiet as possible."

A local animal-rights group is pleased the solo dolphin has finally moved out of the mall.

"We're happy he's gone," said Tove Reece of Voice for Animals. "It's long overdue. We're been trying to fight this fight for 15 years now. Anything is better than this.

"People see that it was wrong and sad to have a dolphin swimming around alone in a tank inside a shopping mall. I think the mall finally reacted to that reality. The fact is that you can't keep dolphins alone because they die, and I think the mall finally buckled to that."

Howard came to WEM in 1985 from Florida, and lived in the lagoon with three other dolphins -- Maria, Gary and Mavis.

Maria died in 2000, Gary in 2001. When Mavis, Howard's partner, died in July 2003, Howard's health became unstable, at which point WEM began its search for a new home.

"When Mavis died, Howard was by himself. At that point, we knew that Howard had to be transferred," Hanson said.

But the move required careful and time-consuming preparations.

"It took six months of planning to have it happen," Hanson said. "We tried to move Howard as soon as we could after Mavis died."

The dolphin is doing well.

Hanson said it's "spring break" for Howard in his new home, where he will live with seven other dolphins.

"He's trying to get accustomed to new faces," he said.

WEM's head trainer accompanied Howard on his voyage and will remain in Florida with him for the next two weeks.

Martin Schuldhaus, the mall's media-relations co-ordinator, said Howard is in his own pool and has not been introduced to the other dolphins.

WEM will announce its plans for the empty lagoon on June 16.

The mall recently acquired 15 flamingos and has plans for a zoo in 2005, but there is only speculation about what may become of Howard's former residence.

For now, the waters in the lagoon, and between WEM and animal-rights groups, are calm.

But for Reece, the empty dolphin pool is a bittersweet victory.

"It's sad to look at this pool and think that we'd imprisoned four dolphins for this long," she said. "And for what? To entertain some jaded shoppers."