Mystery, frustration and questions surround dolphin deaths at Dolphinaris Arizona

Several protests have broken out about Dolphinaris Arizona since plans were announced to open the facility in 2016. This week, the public protested a fourth dolphin dying at the facility. (File photo)

Frustration, questions and outrage surround a string of deaths in Arizona’s most unlikely of residents.

Four bottlenose dolphins have died since September 2017, when Brodie was the first animal to die within the million-gallon pool facility located off the Loop 101 and Via de Ventura on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

In the days following the latest death, which occurred on Thursday, Jan. 31, people gathered along the roads in Scottsdale to protest the for-profit entity.

Dolphinaris Arizona, a product of Mexico-based Dolphinaris, is run by Ventura Entertainment, an entertainment company born from the merger of Dolphinaris, Group Entreteparq and Woodsy. It is the second largest operator of parks nationwide in Mexico.

Dolphinaris Arizona opened in late 2016, and was followed with its first dolphin death less than a year after its opening. Brodie was 7-years-old when he died from a rare muscle disease. Alia, age 10, died in May 2018; followed by Khloe, 11, who died on Dec. 30, 2018. Khloe died following a long, chronic illness that affected her over the last six years, according to a statement by Dolphinaris at the time.

Most recently, Kai, a 22-year-old dolphin was euthanized after he started showing signs of health decline for about two weeks. Dolphinaris Arizona said in a statement that his condition deteriorated following signs of difficulty swimming, eating and breathing.

“… Our team made every effort to save his life, including bloodwork, testing, ultrasounds, x-rays, and engaging external specialists and submitting diagnostic samples to outside university veterinary laboratories,” Dolphinaris General Manager Christian Schaeffer said in a prepared statement.

“Kai initially seemed to be responding, but his health suddenly declined last night around 11:30 p.m. After the veterinary team administrated hours of critical care, including providing him oxygen, medicine and x-ray testing, Kai’s condition continued to decline. We made the extremely difficult decision to humanely euthanize Kai ensuring he would pass peacefully.”

Mr. Schaeffer said Dolphinaris is concerned over this devastating loss and has launched an investigation that includes consulting with external expertise to review this and the previous dolphin deaths and the facilities.

“We recognize losing four dolphins over the last year and a half is abnormal,” said Mr. Schaeffer in the statement. “Over the last several years we have worked with a team of external experts in the fields of animal behavior, water quality and veterinary care to ensure our dolphin family remains healthy. We will be taking proactive measures to increase our collaborative efforts to further ensure our dolphins’ wellbeing and high quality of life.”

Unfortunate probability

Former General Manager, Dr. Grey Stafford, who was employed by Dolphinaris when the facility opened in 2016, says he thinks it’s wise for the company to seek outside veterinary expertise to evaluate all their test results, citing they will eliminate any issues that may be at play.

Dr. Grey Stafford

“As frustrating as it may be for the public and staff, it is also certainly possible that all the events are unrelated,” Dr. Stafford said in an emailed statement to the Independent.

“Well-known zoos will, on occasion, experience a string of notable and unrelated deaths just like wild populations randomly do. The close proximity in time of such events can be upsetting, frustrating and suggestive of bigger issues involved, when in fact, it’s just unfortunate probability.”

Dr. Stafford noted that it is important for all the results to come in before drawing any conclusions. He has been separated from Dolphinaris Arizona for more than two years.

Former full-time veterinarian at Dolphinaris, Molly Martony, declined to comment on the issues.

Following Kai’s death at Dolphinaris, Dolphin Quest formally terminated its animal loan agreement with the company.

Dolphin Quest is one of the companies who loans dolphins to the Arizona facility.

In a statement to media, Dolphin Quest said it is evaluating next steps for the two remaining animals at Dolphinaris.

“The safety and health of our animals is our top priority,” Dr. Rae Stone, co-founder of Dolphin Quest said in a prepared statement.

“In spite of their best efforts, the animal health concerns have not been resolved at Dolphinaris. We have a senior marine mammal specialist from Dolphin Quest onsite at Dolphinaris who knows our remaining dolphins well and is closely monitoring them. They are bright, alert and in good condition at this time. We have contacted USDA and are working with them as we move forward.”

In addition to Dolphin Quest, in a September 2016 article, the Independent reported that five dolphins were transferred from northern California’s Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, prior to Dolphinaris’s opening, where their pool was only a fraction of the size of their new facility.

Kai, 22, died at Dolphinaris Arizona on Jan. 31. (Photo by Dolphinaris Arizona)

Calling for an immediate inspection

On Feb. 1, Washington D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute sent a letter to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA urging the agency to immediately investigate Dolphinaris Arizona.

In a letter to the inspection agency, marine mammal biologist for AWI, Dr. Naomi Rose, asked for an immediate inspection of Dolphinaris Arizona to review the animals’ clinical records and necropsy reports. Dr. Rose also requested an external team conduct an investigation into the conditions at Dolphinaris, citing concerns about the risks posed by Valley Fever and other aerosolized pathogens that are present in the desert environment, according to a press release.

Khloe, an 11-year-old female bottlenose dolphin died at Dolphinaris Arizona on Dec. 30, 2018. (photo by Dolphinaris Arizona)

“We strongly urge that the remaining four dolphins at this facility be confiscated and returned to their facilities of origin,” Dr. Rose said in the letter to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“Our concern has always been twofold: First, dolphins don’t belong in the desert. The environment is simply inappropriate and inhospitable to these ocean creatures. Second, Valley Fever, a fungal infection, is prevalent in Arizona and we have expressed concern about the ability of the dolphins to handle this and other aerosolized pathogens.”

Dr. Rose claims that when Brodie died, Dolphinaris told the public he died of a rare muscle disease, while telling the U.S. government agency responsible for administering the Animal Welfare Act that he died of a fungal infection.

“This raises the possibility that Valley Fever or other fungal infections such as mucormycosis have indeed affected these dolphins,” Dr. Rose said in a prepared statement.

“When Khloe died, the facility claimed she had a chronic illness. If this is true, we question why she was subjected to three moves in less than four years, the last to Dolphinaris. It is also inexcusable for her to have been used in swim-with encounters if she had a chronic condition. If she did not become sick until she came to Arizona, the concern again is that fungal pathogens may be implicated.”

In 2016, Dolphinaris officials said the pools the dolphins are housed in is turned over about 16 times a day, with a filtration system that keeps dust and other particles out of the water. Additionally, the pools can be enclosed to stabilize the temperature of the air or the water.

According to documents available on the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, four inspections were recorded between October 2016 and July 2018. All four reports state that were no non-compliant items identified during the inspection.

The website states:

“USDA Animal Care inspectors conduct routine, unannounced inspections of all entities licensed/registered under the Animal Welfare Act. Inspectors conduct three types of inspections: 1) pre-licensing inspections, to make sure the applicant can meet the federal standards prior to being licensed/registered; 2) routine, unannounced compliance inspections of all entities to make sure they are adhering to the federal standards and regulations; and 3) focused inspections based upon public complaints or allegations of unlicensed activities.

During routine inspections, USDA reviews the premises, records, husbandry practices, program of veterinary care and animal handling procedures to ensure the animals are receiving humane care. The frequency of inspections is based on several factors – including an entity’s compliance history. USDA inspects research facilities that use regulated animals at least once a year.”

Two female dolphins jump while playing at Dolphinaris Arizona prior to the facility’s October 2016 opening date. (File photo)

‘Fed up and angry’

Don Scott, a Fountain Hills resident and volunteer State Council representative for the Humane Society of the United States — Arizona, says he is angry and fed up with the outcome of Dolphinaris Arizona.

“Personally, I am angry and fed up, but my hope is that the public feels this way, too,” he said. “Increasingly, I believe it does. We have moved beyond the moral question of whether dolphins who swim 100 miles per day in the wild belong in a concrete pool to the question of how many dolphins need to die before society says ‘no more?’”

Don Scott

While Kai was older than the other dolphins who have died at the facility, Mr. Scott questions what was his quality of life.

“It was said that he had been experiencing difficulty swimming, eating and breathing for about two weeks before being euthanized. Was he forced to perform? Had he been sick in the past? Obviously Dolphinaris’ treatment didn’t work, likely because they don’t know what’s killing their dolphin performers,” Mr. Scott explained.

“Dolphins are the bread winners. Without dolphins performing and entertaining and being groped by humans, there is no Dolphinaris. Is this place detrimental to dolphin health? If the four remaining dolphins could speak, I strongly believe they’d in no certain terms say, ‘yes.’”

Mr. Scott is also calling for independent expert investigations, pointing out the facility was built on sovereign tribal land, in what he calls “stealth-like fashion,” outside of public input and discourse.

“People including science experts questioned the sanity of holding dolphins captive in a pool in the desert, a pool shared by humans. One dolphin has died approximately every 210 days since this facility opened, with three of the deceased quite young. That goes beyond coincidence,” he said.

“It’s tragic that dolphins have had to die to even move the discussion to this point. These creatures don’t want to live their lives in misery, living in a tiny pool any more than we want to be confined to a single room of our homes all our lives.”

Dolphinaris Arizona is a part of the OdySea in the Desert entertainment campus which also houses eateries, shops, Butterfly Wonderland and OdySea Aquarium.

“The developer of OdySea in the Desert Amram Knishinsky, I believe, at one point stated that he wouldn’t exhibit dolphins or whales because it was controversial, yet I do believe he is behind the permission for Dolphinaris to operate on his property. I ask Mr. Knishinsky to do the right thing for these remaining dolphins and in memory of those who’ve died to end this relationship and rehome these magnificent creatures,” Mr. Scott said.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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