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November 26, 2014

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Animal rights groups try to halt Mirage from importing dolphins

Groups filed complaint prior to last week’s death of dolphin Sgt. Pepper

Image

Justin M. Bowen

Sgt. Pepper (right) swims with his mother Dutchess in September 2008 at the Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. Sgt. Pepper died Wednesday June 3, 2009 of complications from a lung infection.

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 »

In the days before a dolphin named Sgt. Pepper died last week at The Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, two animal rights organizations had filed a complaint against the Mirage’s request to import two more dolphins for its habitat.

Part of the complaint, ironically, said more dolphins shouldn't be brought in because other dolphins had died in the past at the habitat, which the two groups claim is being used as a money-making entertainment enterprise, rather than for educational or conservation purposes.

On April 15, the Mirage placed an application with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service to import two captive Atlantic bottlenose dolphins — one female and one male — from Bermuda for breeding purposes. (See the Mirage application)

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 the NMFS month-long public comment period, citing the lack of educational and conservation value and the compromising of animal welfare. (Letter sent by Born Free and The World Society for the Protection of Animals)

MGM Mirage spokesperson Gordon Absher said the purpose of the breeding would be to increase the habitat’s number of dolphins “to continue our study and research” at the dolphin habitat.

“As with every endangered or protected animal, the more we can observe and the better we can understand their situation in the wild,” Absher said.

But animal rights activists see a different motive for the Mirage's request — it wants more dolphins solely to produce a profit, says Born Free senior program associate Monica Engebretson.

“They want additional performers and they want to try to breed new performers. Of course baby dolphins are especially attractive to people so they like to have that constant,” Engebretson said.

The Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden Web site cites the dolphin habitat’s purpose “is to provide a healthy and nurturing environment for dolphins, as well as to educate the public about marine mammals and their environment” where guests can “see the dolphins in a naturalistic environment, exhibiting natural behaviors.”

The Born Free and WSPA letter disputes those statements. Their complaint says “The educational information provided by The Mirage … Web site is little more than thinly veiled public relations propaganda disguised as education, consisting of superficial taxonomic information and vague references to conservation.”

The Web site for the Mirage’s dolphin habitat says it hosts educational programs for K-12 students, guided tours throughout the day and a “trainer for a day” program where visitors are given an opportunity to play, train and feed the dolphins.

According to the Importation for Display or Research criteria (Sec. 104) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a facility requesting importation of marine animals for display must “offer a program for education or conservation purposes that is based on professionally recognized standards of the public display community.”

Engbretson says that's not the case at the Mirage.

“More of their research has to do with how to keep dolphins in captivity, which has nothing to do with conservation, it has to do with entertainment. They’ve already demonstrated that they can’t keep dolphins in alive in their tank,” Engebretson said.

Two-year-old Sgt. Pepper died Thursday of complications of a lung infection. MGM Mirage spokesperson Monet said the Mirage’s animal care staff and veterinarians had been actively treating Sgt. Pepper for the lung infection for months after being diagnosed in December 2008. A necropsy will be performed on Sgt. Pepper to determine further information on his death.

Sgt. Pepper was the 14th to die at the Mirage dolphin habitat since the attraction opened in 1990. Five of the 14 dolphins were stillborns or died shortly after birth.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has initiated an investigation into the latest dolphin death at the Mirage, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The department completed an investigation into the death of Sage last year and the results of lab tests were "inconclusive," the USDA report said. There is no enforcement action planned from the 2008 death investigation, the spokeswoman said.

Though the date of import stated in the Mirage’s petition was June 1, the NMFS has not yet approved the request.

The animal care team at the Mirage said the death of Sgt. Pepper should not slow the application process unless NMFS find issues at the facility that need to be investigated.

The Mirage imported Lighting, Sgt. Pepper’s father, from a captivity facility in Florida more than three years ago.

Sun reporter Mary Manning contributed to this report.

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