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November 23, 2014

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Feds permit MGM Mirage to import 2 dolphins

Animal rights groups had filed a complaint during public comment

Dolphins in the Desert, seg. 3

14 dolphins have died in the 19 years since Steve Wynn opened the Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage. Now, an animal rights group wants to stop the casino from bringing more dolphins to the desert.

The Mirage's newest addition (Sept. 2008)

Colleen Ast, a senior trainer, is one of many on constant rotation to observe, record and note the dolphins' actions. Launch slideshow »

A federal agency has granted MGM Mirage a permit to import two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins for public display in Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden on the Las Vegas Strip.

The Mirage filed an application April 15 with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service to import two captive Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, a male and a female, from Bermuda for breeding.

The permit was granted on Aug. 4 and was published in the Federal Register on Monday, said Jennifer Skidmore, spokeswoman for the service.

After the deaths of two dolphins, Sgt. Pepper in early June and Sage last year, animal rights organizations Born Free USA and The World Society for the Protection of Animals filed a complaint against the Mirage's petition to import during a 30-day public comment period.

MGM Mirage spokesman Gordon Absher said the permit for the two dolphins is just the first step in a process to bring new mammals to the resort. "We have not announced anything," Absher said.

By breeding dolphins at the habitat, the Mirage could increase its dolphin population and continue ongoing research, Absher said.

The Siegfried and Roy Secret Garden Web site describes the dolphin habitat as 2.5 million gallons in four connected pools. An artificial coral reef and sandy bottom try to replicate the dolphins' natural habitat.

The Mirage's dolphin display is open to school students and research is an integral part of the display, according to MGM Mirage. Guests may become "dolphin trainer for a day," for example.

But animal rights activists said the Mirage's quest for new dolphins is motivated by profit, noting the dolphin display is open to paying visitors, for parties and for private dolphin encounters.

The Born Free and WSPA letter cited stress that 10- or 11-year-old dolphins undergo when being transported from the tropical climes of Bermuda to Southern Nevada's desert, causing acute stress.

Sgt. Pepper was the 14th dolphin to die at the Mirage habitat since it opened in 1990. Five of the 14 dolphins were stillborn or died shortly after birth; others died from respiratory infections such as pneumonia, pulmonary abscesses and stomach tears.

In the case of Sage, an investigation found "inconclusive" causes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated an investigation in Sgt. Pepper's death, but results are not yet available.

The Mirage permit was issued under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The Mirage last imported a dolphin, Lightning, Sgt. Pepper's father, from a captive facility in Florida more than three years ago.

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