Public outcry clouds intentions of Dolphinaris Arizona

Local animal welfare advocate Don Scott during a protest in early May (submitted photo)

Local animal welfare advocate Don Scott during a protest in early May (photo by Ash Wiscovitch, owner of Ash Wisco Photography)

Dolphinaris Arizona, is a new family-friendly learning facility that aims to educate and develop the “next generation” of dolphin experiences in Arizona, proponents say.

The site, currently under construction with plans for a million-gallon pool, is to be adjacent to the OdySea Aquarium and Butterfly Wonderland in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community at Via de Ventura and Loop 101.

The new facility expects to house an estimated eight to 12 inshore bottlenose dolphins that have been born and raised in human care, Dolphinaris officials say.  Dolphinaris Arizona, a product of Mexico-based Dolphinaris, has endured public backlash for its plans to create a dolphin facility in Arizona — but this is not a new idea, says Dolphinaris Arizona General Manager Dr. Grey Stafford.

“When you ask about the legality, that question has been answered for over 50 years,” said Dr. Stafford in a May 9 phone interview. “It’s federally allowed or mandated and recognized as being an important conservation.”

In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act to prohibit, with certain exceptions, the “take” of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.

The website states that Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 based on the following findings and policies:

  • Some marine mammal species or stocks may be in danger of extinction and depletion as a result of human activities;
  • These species or stocks must not be permitted to fall below their optimum sustainable population level (“depleted”);
  • Measures should be taken to replenish these species or stocks;
  • There is inadequate knowledge of the ecology and population dynamics; and
  • Marine mammals have proven to be resources of great international significance.

During construction the Dophinaris officials will be working simultaneously to become a licensed zoological facility, Dr. Stafford contends.

“One of the major components of that act, Congress recognized that public display was not only a good thing but a great thing,” said Dr. Stafford. “It was very valuable to the preservation of all marine animals. It allows us to learn about this animal, and to understand the ocean and how our decisions effect marine mammals.”

The Act states that a permit may be issued for the purpose of public display only to a person who: offers an education or conservation program; is registered; and maintains facilities for the public display of marine mammals that are open to the public on a regularly scheduled basis.

The licensing procedure includes space, water quality, the presence of veterinary care, how animal’s food is stored and thawed, and how the animals are transported, said Dr. Stafford.

“I’ve been a marine mammal trainer for over 26 years, so we are all very experienced in working with these animals and we are not interested in just meeting the regulations,” said Dr. Stafford. “We are all interested in exceeding them, and exceeding them by a lot.”

The 18-year Valley resident joined Dolphinaris Arizona about two and a half months ago, he said. Prior, he worked at the Wild Life World Zoo for 15 years, where he presented animals to the media and coordinated the sea lion facility.

One of the first steps Dr. Stafford took in his new role was to hire a fulltime marine mammal veterinary who is in the process of relocating to Arizona, he says.

A holistic approach

The eight to 12 animals that could end up living in the Dolphinaris Arizona facility will have their own full-time veterinarian, as well as consulting veterinarians and a corporate veterinarian, Dr. Stafford says.

“Right now we have a roughly three-animal-to-one-veterinarian ratio, which is unheard of in the zoo world. That’s a lot of healthcare for these animals,” said Dr. Stafford. “We are devoted to their welfare and their care.”

The facility will also employ professionally trained behaviorists to teach the animals cooperative behaviors, such as learning to slide up onto a scale and laying flat so veterinarians can monitor pregnancies, look inside their mouths and examine their bodies.

“It’s really amazing what these animals can learn, and it’s all predicated on positive reinforcement,” said Dr. Stafford.

These are large animals, so we want cooperative behaviors and the way to achieve that is through positive reinforcement — through reward-based training.

Those rewards can take many, many forms, and that’s why I’ve hired very fun and creative trainers because they basically get paid to have fun with the animals with the purpose of conditioning these behaviors.”

Some of the amenities the bottlenose dolphins will interact with include water hoses, ice toys, water jets, balls and interaction with guests.

“All of this will provide variety to the animals in mental — as well as physical — stimulation to them,” said Dr. Stafford.

In addition to being an entertainment facility, Dolphinaris Arizona will be required to provide educational opportunities and contribute to scientific research.

“We can not just display (dolphins) we have to educate people, we’ve got to learn about them and so one of the nice things about having a full time veterinarian is she can help us coordinate those types of worthwhile research projects going forward as well as with our training staff,” said Dr. Stafford. “We want it to be a place of learning, a place of fun and a place where animals are well cared for and people come to appreciate marine mammals.”

The concept of keeping bottlenose dolphins in captivity is a practice that several zoological facilities do around the world — some on coastal towns but most are in pool-type facilities like Dolphinaris Arizona, said Dr. Stafford.

The bottlenose dolphins the Scottsdale facility will be housing are known as an in-shore ecotype, which means they are smaller than off-shore ecotypes which can be up to 200 pounds larger.

“When you look at what inshore dolphins do — and how they spend their time and where they spend their time — most of the time they are in water that is less than 10-feet deep,” said Dr. Stafford. “They can go deeper, and very often they will in search of food. But if the food is inshore, they are going to stay inshore.”

The Scottsdale facility’s human-raised dolphins have only known the love and attention of veterinarians their entire life, Dr. Stafford said.

“Across all U.S. facilities, about 65 percent of the dolphins that you find in those zoos and aquariums were born in human care,” he said. “So that means we have second, third, fourth generation dolphins that have only known life with humans.”

An opposing view

Don Scott, an advocate for animal welfare, states entertainment options are “literally at our fingertips,” and questions how humans justify the “continued exploitation, enslavement and brutal dominion over animals.”

Mr. Scott says he believes that captivity equals slavery.

“They will tell you these dolphins were raised in captivity,” he said in a May 10 phone interview. “Well captivity still means slavery. It still means these dolphins are going to be brought in and dropped in a tank. They will eat as they are trained to eat, if they don’t react properly to the training they won’t get their food.”

Mr. Scott says he believes the public does not want to see this type of treatment to animals. Recently there was a protest held in response to the under-construction-facility.

“We had 200-plus protesters out there and the feedback that we’re getting is very positive,” said Mr. Scott. “I just think people do not want to see animals exploited.”

He agrees education is important, but not at the expense of an animal’s health, safety and welfare.

“Education happens in the wild,” he said. “No animals need to swim in circles, that’s not education to me.”

In addition, a petition has been started by a person named Laurice Dee, who also is the administrator to two Arizona dolphin advocacy Facebook pages according to LinkedIn.

The petition, titled “A Big ‘NO’ to Captive Dolphins in Arizona!” targets Mauricio Martinez del Alva, CEO, Ventura Entertainment; and Amram Knishinsky, CEO, Northern Gateway, LLC.

On May 10 the petition had 130,944 supporters — with only 1,039 from Arizona.

Amram Knishinsky is the lead developer in the OdySea in the Desert projects — unaffiliated with Dolphinaris Arizona.

Details still in flux

Dolphinaris Arizona is still ironing out the details of what types of experiences will be offered, but Dr. Stafford says there will be a variety of activities for different interests, skill and comfort levels.

One specialty is a pool that guests are standing below the water line, and can look through view panels to meet the animals through a “dry encounter.”

“We’ve got one program that I think people are really going to like — it’s like a dolphin-trainer experience,” said Dr. Stafford. “Guests can come and learn about water quality, food prep, veterinary medicine and still do several encounters.”

Dolphinaris has already donated millions of dollars into Arizona, according to Dr. Stafford.

“This is really a multi-national, multi-cultural endeavor. It’s bringing high-paying construction jobs and will bring more professional jobs to the Valley once we’re open. So I think it’s a neat thing for everybody including the animals.”

Mexico-based Dolphinaris has five other locations: Cancun, Riviera Maya Park, Cozumel, Tulum and Barcelo.

In 2014, the Associated Press published an article evaluating survival rates for killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions and buluga whales at more than 170 U.S. parks and aquariums. In regards to bottlenose dolphins, the article found that: “captive bottlenose dolphins had an average life expectancy of almost 24 years, with a high estimate of 26 years and a low estimate of 22 years. Those at SeaWorld had an average life expectancy of almost 45 years. A population of bottlenose dolphins off the Sarasota coast has a life expectancy of 25 years.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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