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Vegas casino closes wildlife attraction after third dolphin death this year

The Washington Post 9/30/2022 Andrea Sachs
Three Atlantic bottlenose dolphins jump out of the water at the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas in May 2008. © Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil Three Atlantic bottlenose dolphins jump out of the water at the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas in May 2008.

The Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas has temporarily closed its dolphin and wildlife attraction after an 11-year-old bottlenose dolphin died on Saturday, the venue’s third dolphin death since spring.

The resident cetacean, named K2, was the second dolphin to perish in September. The Mirage said the cause of death was a respiratory illness; the necropsy report will take about 30 days to complete.

Earlier this month, 19-year-old Maverick had been receiving medical care for a lung infection when he died; the company is awaiting the necropsy findings for his case. In April, the 13-year-old Bella succumbed to gastroenteritis.

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The Siegfried & Roy Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, which also houses several big cats, has not scheduled a reopening date. A Mirage spokesman said the Oct. 9 date posted on the website does not reflect the actual return. The Mirage last closed the attraction in March 2020, when the pandemic forced the entire Strip to go dark.

The hotel and casino, which is operated by MGM Resorts, has been criticized over the years for the high number of dolphin deaths at the attraction, which opened in 1990 with five bottlenoses. Since its founding, the company said 14 dolphins have died for a variety of causes and at a range of ages: Three were at least 25 years old, the average life expectancy of dolphins in captivity, and three were youngsters, for instance. Activists, however, count 16 deaths.

“This particular facility is known amongst the animal rights community as the ‘Dolphin Death Pool’ due to the high percentage of dolphin deaths that were reported in the late 90s and early 00s,” Shelly Rae, a Vegas resident and dolphin advocate, said in an email. “I am appalled that the Mirage seems to be reverting back to these former standards of care.”

During the closure, the company said independent investigators, such as the San Diego-based National Marine Mammal Foundation, will examine the venue’s services and operations, such as its veterinary care, water quality and filtration system. (The NMMF did not respond to requests for comment.)

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On April 27, the attraction passed a routine inspection by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. An agency spokesman was unsure of the next scheduled visit, but confirmed that the resort had temporarily closed its doors to conduct an internal probe.

In a staff memo released the day after K2’s death, Mirage’s interim president Franz Kallao expressed sorrow over losing the young son of Duchess, the property’s eldest dolphin, who is nearly 50 years old.

“K2 was very vocal, energetic, loved his toys and was a joy to be around,” Kallao wrote. “He always made us smile.” Kallao told his team, and the general public, that a group of experts would thoroughly review the habitat, with the goal of creating a safe and secure home for its finned residents.

“We are temporarily closing the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat to focus our efforts on ensuring that we have the safest possible environment and the best care possible for our dolphins and to give our team the time they need to process and grieve,” he stated in the letter.

Animal welfare advocates are pointing to the death as a cruel consequence of holding wild animals in captivity. “It’s horribly tragic,” said Cameron Harsh, programs director at the U.S. office of World Animal Protection. “This is the third dolphin to die at this venue [this year], and they are all under the age of 20. Dolphin live 30 to 50 years in the wild. That is really indicative of the short life spans of these animals when they are in captive environments.”

Harsh said man-made enclosures can be detrimental to the physical and mental well-being of wild animals, especially creatures hard-wired to roam far and deep. Dolphins can hunt and swim at depths of up to 180 feet, they said. The Humane Society of the United States said the highly intelligent and social mammals can cover 80 miles a day, about 20 times the length of the Las Vegas Strip. “The surface area of a tank is minuscule compared to the ocean,” they said. “It’s like being stuck in a shallow pool.”

The habitat’s four interconnected pools contain 2.2 million gallons of man-made seawater and are fringed by palm trees at the Strip hotel known for its tropical theme and faux volcano. The maximum depth of the Caribbean blue water is 23 feet.

The company said the attraction’s primary purpose is to educate and contribute to dolphin research. The dolphins don’t perform tricks or gamely swim with guests, for instance, though visitors who purchase special packages, such as the Meet and Greet Experience, can feed and snap photos with them. Dave Blasko, executive director of animal care at the Mirage, said the dolphins are not coerced with food or treats. If the mammals want to swim over to say hello, they will; if they don’t, they won’t, and you just paid $100 for wet feet.

For the science part of the mission, Blasko cited one project that involved partnering with the Navy to study dolphin hearing and the effect of ship frequencies on wild populations. Darian L. Wilson, director of corporate communications and public affairs for the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, said the Navy Marine Mammal Program does not use the resort’s dolphins or facilities. However, its affiliates share information with the Mirage, especially data that relates to the care and welfare of marine mammals.

“Our team here was saddened to hear about the loss of dolphin K2 and our sympathies go out to the personnel there,” Wilson added by email.

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Since 2013, Rae has been calling out the company for the inhumane treatment of its dolphins. She posts photos and descriptions of infractions through Free the Mojave Dolphins, such as the chewing gum and chicken nuggets she once discovered floating in their habitat. Rae and other activists also distribute literature about the dolphins’ plight and hold demonstrations outside the resort. The next one, named “Freedom Matters: Protest captivity at the Mirage Las Vegas!”, is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 5.

For many animal welfare advocates, improving the dolphins’ living conditions isn’t enough. They want the animals to be returned to their wild habitats or rehomed in a sanctuary where they will no longer have to endure puppy-like pats on the head and selfie photo shoots.

They also want to ban the practice of breeding wild animals, thereby stopping the industry from churning out future animal entertainers. Six of the Mirage’s seven remaining dolphins were born in breeding programs and can never live in the wild.

“This needs to be a turning point,” said Harsh, referring to the recent tragedy. “We need more wildlife protection, not wildlife exploitation.”

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