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Trapped in an underwater hell, Mexico pressed to free dolphins
Linda Diebel
Staff Reporter

Mexico pressed to free dolphins after hurricane kills 3
Toronto Star
Star readers fuelled crusade to rescue mammals

12th October 2003

Mexican authorities recently left seven captive dolphins in a shallow steel sea-cage, only metres from the beach, during two deadly hurricanes on the Baja California coast. Within days of Hurricane Marty on Sept. 22, three were dead.

These are the same dolphins authorities promised to protect after an international protest over their treatment, led by Star readers, two years ago.

They had no way out. Abandoned to the storm, unable to dive, they were thrown up against the bottom by hurricane-force winds, their big bodies tossed against wooden pylons and bashed against the steel mesh of their cage about the size of two football fields.

"It would have been like being in a washing machine," says U.S. dolphin expert Ric O'Barry.

Of eight bottlenose dolphins captured in late 2000 and caged in the tourist town of La Paz, half are now dead. This has occurred despite an ongoing campaign for their release and a fully financed plan to free them in the Pacific Ocean.

The first dolphin, a female, Luna, died within a month of capture. After the last storm, three more died — Concha, six months pregnant, young male Ricky, and Quinta, a big male whose bungled capture and mistreatment, captured on videotape, enraged Star readers.

The Mexican government is legally responsible for these dolphins, captured for a "swim-with-dolphins" scheme. Yet, despite warnings, nobody ensured there was an adequate hurricane evacuation plan in place — again, mandated by law — in a hurricane capital of the world.

Mexican authorities are still fussing over autopsy findings, saying preliminary results suggest "circumstantial" deaths. But environmentalists, who warned of this sad outcome, have no doubt they died as a result of the hurricane and its aftermath. Their internal organs were brutally pounded, says O'Barry.

The four surviving dolphins are in rough shape, swimming in a chocolate-brown sludge of sewage and debris from back-to-back hurricanes, Ignacio in August, then Marty. On the autopsy table, it was discovered Quinta suffocated from a baseball cap stuck in his oesophagus.

Their sea-cage abuts on sewer outlets. At its lowest point, it's 26 centimetres deep.

"I cannot even imagine the horror of being prisoners in that sea-pen, without any chance of saving themselves," says Mexican environmentalist Yolanda Alaniz. She has led the campaign to release the dolphins back to the Pacific, a stone's throw across the narrow Baja Peninsula from La Paz.

Star readers have been involved from the start, and they almost succeeded.

Two years ago, appalled by a story about their brutal capture and subsequent death of Luna, hundreds of readers launched an international protest to Mexican President Vicente Fox. Widespread media coverage ensued, including ABC's 20/20 and, for a few months before powerful Mexican interests tied up the case in legal wrangling, it looked as if they would swim free. Instead, says Toronto marine mammal activist Gwen McKenna: "It has just become a bigger and bigger nightmare ... and the hurricane season isn't over yet."

Alaniz is devastated. "It has been very difficult because, for me, I made a promise to them and now, three more are dead. It is personal," she says, breaking down on the phone from Mexico City. "The worst is that for more than two years we all warned this could happen. They did not believe us."

"We were ready to go and free them. We are still ready to go," says O'Barry from Miami, a wildlife consultant for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). He became famous in the 1960s after training dolphins for the TV series, Flipper. "This whole thing can be turned around. We just need co-operation from the Mexican government."

The story of the La Paz dolphins is a saga of human greed, stupidity and incompetence.

Throughout, the hapless dolphins were left in the care of an individual who bashed open their crates with a hammer.

It's also a story of heroes, but they have paid a price.

Environment Secretary Victor Lichtinger, for example, lost his job. President Fox replaced him after he came under increasing fire for banning the further capture of marine mammals and pushing for the release of the La Paz dolphins against powerful state interests. Lichtinger sought to restrict burgeoning "swim-with-dolphins" programs springing up in every rundown theme park in Mexico.

Mexico's Environment Protection Agency condemned the La Paz operation. Official Victor Ramirez, who closed it down, was fired. Environmentalists have been threatened and intimidated.

"This is a black eye for Mexico," says McKenna, adding that, with a million Canadian tourists visiting Mexico annually, "the country can ill afford to have this kind of publicity.

"Get them out of there now," she says. "When the story broke in the Star two years ago I received thousands of e-mails from Canadians inquiring about the status of the dolphins ... How can you explain this kind of negligence?"

Quinta's terrible journey was captured on videotape by Juan Antonio Ramirez, of Channel 10 in La Paz, and posted on the Star's Web site. The male (wrongly identified as female by his captors) was one of eight dolphins jammed into wooden crates and carted across Baja by men who, as the video clearly shows, had no idea what they were doing.

The crates were soaked in blood. Dolphin "trainer" Javier Aedo used a hammer to open the crates holding super-sensitive animals whose world is defined by sound. Men heaved them onto makeshift slings and lugged them off. They dropped Quinta eight times, his big head thrashing in the sand.

Within a month, Luna was dead. Alaniz, head of the Mexican Marine Mammal Conservation Society, began "Project Luna" to shut down the La Paz operation. By May, 2001, it was called the "Dolphin Learning Centre" and tourists were paying to swim with dolphins.

The centre is a corroding mesh cage with a viewing platform. U.S. dolphin biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff describes "the worst conditions I have every observed in any country ... critically sub-standard."

Ownership of the facility is murky. Aedo fronted legal battles to keep it open, apparently with the support of state Governor Leonel Cota Montano, from Baja California Sur. It is a bog of interests, public and private. The dolphins themselves are a federal responsibility, while the facility supposedly falls under state jurisdiction.

Cota Montano told the Star in 2001 he would intervene if it could be "genuinely proven" the animals were being mistreated.

"For me, there is more than enough proof. Half of them are dead," says Alaniz. "Do they need to have all of them dead to prove that something is wrong?"

Aedo did not return phone calls from the Star.

The four surviving dolphins, too weak to travel any distance, are females Aqua and Salsita, and males Nachito and Capuchino. Alaniz wants them immediately taken from the La Paz cage, nursed back to health and flown by helicopter to Magdalena Bay on the Pacific coast.

The "soft release" plan was put in place two years ago with the help of O'Barry and London-based WSPA. The dolphins would be placed in sea-pens, where they would learn to eat live fish again and be released in the presence of their own pod.

Mexican environment ministry spokesperson Manuel Gallardo would only say that "administrative procedures" are underway by the government but offered no information on how the dolphins might be protected.

Meanwhile, Alaniz is horrified by reports the dolphins will soon be moved to a concrete tank somewhere to live out lives as aquatic performers.

"We are all so sad," says Ramirez, who took the first explosive video. "We Mexicans love our country and its natural resources, but we see so much abuse. There is only a fine line between the abuse of animals and the abuse of people."