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Death of captive dolphins sparks animal rights movement

BY Laurence Iliff

The Dallas Morning News

31st August 2003

CANCUN, Mexico

Near the seashore at Cancun's Nizuc water park, 27 dolphins recently captured in the wild await training on how to swim with mostly American tourists, who pay $100 and up to interact with the marine mammals.

After training, they are to join local dolphins at the park's "Atlantida" attraction. Pictures of the playful animals appear on buses and brochures throughout Cancun, promising an unforgettable experience - one offered in an increasing number of marine parks around the Caribbean.

But for now, the new arrivals have become poster children for a global animal rights movement, which seeks not just to have them returned to the wild, but also hopes their plight will help end international dolphin trafficking altogether.

Not only are the Cancun dolphins part of one of the biggest captures in history, but they could become part of a larger tragedy, animal rights activists said.

One of the original 28 dolphins imported from the Solomon Islands died just after arrival in July, and one of the local dolphins at the park died this week, Mexican officials said. No cause of death was given in either case.

Activists are pressuring the government to revoke Nizuc's import permit and force the park to pay for returning the dolphins to the wild - what could be one of the biggest dolphin "rescues" ever.

"It's always one, or two, or six, or twelve, but nothing like this has ever happened," said Richard O'Barry, the former trainer of "Flipper" in the 1960s TV hit, who now carries out high-profile "rescues" of captive dolphins from Nicaragua to Japan.

"This case is so big and so bizarre that (the authorities) have to do something," said O'Barry, who has visited the park over the past two weeks and predicted, "more dolphins will die."

Parque Nizuc has insisted that international standards for the treatment of the dolphins have been met at all times and that the dolphins' care is being monitored by Mexican government officials.

Park manager Mauricio Martinez told the Associated Press that rights groups had "spread a lot of misinformation."

Park spokeswoman Julieta Camacho said prior to the second dolphin death that all of the new arrivals were fine. "What I can tell you is the dolphins are in perfect condition, not one is sick, and none of them are going to die," she said.

Camacho did not return phone messages seeking further comment this week.

Environmentalists in the Solomon Islands, an archipelago in the South Pacific, have said a total of 200 dolphins were captured for eventual sale by poor fishermen - perhaps the largest single capture ever. Many others died in the process, they said. Activists attempting to see the remaining dolphins were prevented from doing so by the fishermen.

That puts whale-friendly Mexico in the thick of an international debate that has become a sequel of the 1990s saga to "Free Keiko," the killer whale from a Mexico City amusement park.

Keiko was the star of Free Willy, a hit Hollywood movie about a mistreated whale and the boy who saves him. The publicity eventually led to Keiko being released into the Icelandic wild.

Since then, Mexico has banned the capture of dolphins off its shores, extended its protection of marine mammals, and is considering a ban on the import of dolphins altogether.

It has also sharply reduced the number of dolphins killed by its tuna fishing fleet, although U.S. environmental groups are still fighting to prevent Mexico from selling its tuna under the "dolphin safe" label.

Mark Berman, assistant director of the marine mammal project at Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, said that supporting dolphin captivity is like buying tuna from nations that still kill dolphins.

Paying that ticket contributes to the continued demise of these animals," he said.

Mexican environmental officials, who at first defended the import of the Solomon Islands dolphins, said they are now taking another look at the government permit issued to the park, which is owned by the cousin of a Mexican cement mogul.

Environmental Minister Victor Lichtinger said in mid-August that his agency had detected "regulatory lapses" in Parque Nizuc's dolphin import permit.

The U.S.-based Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums is also looking at the case before it gives final approval to Parque Nizuc's application to become a member.

"We have an investigation going on right now," said Marilee Menard, executive director of the organization, which represents most marine mammal facilities in the United States and several abroad.

She said that well-treated dolphins "in human care" have long, happy lives and educate the public about the importance of protecting them in the wild.

"We look at the activists as not understanding that we are the ones that are trying to do the education," said Menard.

Although the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act allows for the import of dolphins captured in the wild, Menard said, no member of her organization has done so in the last decade. About half of all captive dolphins in the United States were caught in the wild in decades past, she said. The others were born in captivity.

In Cancun, opinions are mixed on the issue of dolphin captivity.

Tom Kovel, a lighting technician visiting Parque Nizuc from New York, said he had participated in a "swim with the dolphins" program at a different Caribbean park and had no problem with the concept.

"It was great. These things pushed me like 60 feet," said Kovel, 45. "They were very tame animals, very well trained."

But Maira Najera, a Cancun waitress, said dolphin attractions are cruel.

"They are just like human beings," Najera, 32, said of the dolphins. "A tourist does not know where they come from and how they are captured, but we do."

Sara Rincon Gallardo, a Cancun activist who has worked to free lions and other wild animals used in tourist attractions, said that if the government does not act on the dolphin issue and other environmental problems, she is ready to propose a boycott of Cancun, the No. 1 tourist destination in the country.

"It's time to teach a lesson to the Mexican people and to our politicians that we are destroying Cancun," she said.

She estimated that there are more than 150 captive dolphins in eight swim parks in Cancun, the so-called Riviera Maya to the south, and the nearby island of Cozumel.

That makes the area one of the largest zones in the world for human-dolphin interaction, said O'Barry, who estimates that up to 3,000 dolphins live in captivity around the world.

The worst "offender," he said, is the United States, which has "swim with the dolphins" attractions in Florida and elsewhere.

Berman of Earth Island Institute said the U.S. government's annual inventory of marine mammals put the number of captive dolphins in the United States at around 400.

The parent company of Sea World, Anheuser-Busch Cos., has nine parks in the United States. Patrons can swim with dolphins at Orlando's Discovery Cove and touch and feed them at Sea World San Antonio.

In 1997, the privately owned Dallas World Aquarium dropped its effort to import four Amazon River dolphins from Venezuela after prominent scientists from many countries objected to the plan.

In Cancun, O'Barry, 63, said he is gathering proof that an American water park owner in Mexico violated the U.S. embargo against Cuba by importing dolphins from the island. He also said the Russian mafia is trafficking in dolphins used in that nation's military services.

Last year, he and other activists protested the capture of Mexican dolphins for a water park in La Paz, Baja California Sur, before the ban was put in place. Those dolphins are still in the park, he said.

O'Barry, who previously worked at the Miami Seaquarium, said he has a personal interest in freeing the dolphins.

After catching more than 100 dolphins himself, O'Barry said he had a change of heart when the most important of the five who played "Flipper" died in his arms in 1970. Since then, he has worked to free dolphins all over the world.

"I'm doing it because I helped create this mess," said O'Barry.

"Flipper historically was the first time people were really exposed to dolphins on a huge level internationally," he said. "On the one hand, it exposed people to them, and on the other it created this desire to swim with them, and kiss them and hug them and love them to death, which created all these captures."

O'Barry said that while dolphins appear to be smiling, they have no other facial expression and so many people think they are happy no matter what conditions they live in. He is the author of a non-fiction book, "Behind the Dolphin Smile."

Marine park owners "are telling you and the public that the dolphins are doing fine, and they're here to teach you respect for nature, but it's the height of hypocrisy to capture them and destroy their quality of life to enhance ours," he said. "To teach a child not to step on a butterfly is as important to the child as it is to the butterfly."