AR-News: NYT: This Is Fun, but Did Anyone Ask the Dolphins?
unclewolf at olypen.com
Thu Oct 2 09:14:45 EDT 2003
The New York Times, October 2, 2003
This Is Fun, but Did Anyone Ask the Dolphins?
By DAVID GONZALEZ
CANCÚN, Mexico - Thousands of tourists come here every year to swim with dolphins, expecting mystical encounters or unmatched educational experiences. Whether at water parks or even at a mall, the price for an hour's swim is about $100 - not counting the videos, photographs, T-shirts or dolls to commemorate fleeting moments riding atop the snouts of two sleek creatures.
But the real cost is much higher, according to a growing international protest movement of environmentalists and animal rights advocates who say there is nothing educational about turning wild animals into lucrative rides and who are outraged over the recent deaths of two captive dolphins at an amusement park.
Their past protests led the Mexican government to ban the capture of local dolphins, and the legislature is considering prohibiting imports as well. Now the protesters have turned the tourist-rich Yucatán Peninsula, where there are now nine swim programs, into the front lines of the dolphin wars.
Yolanda Alaniz, a former congressional aide who heads a conservation group, said a dolphin could bring in as much as $7,500 a day. "But it is a cruel business," she said. "That is why we are going step by step to stop them."
Ms. Alaniz said the first of the 240 dolphins in Mexican parks were caught by local fishermen, who were paid several hundred dollars a dolphin; 81 dolphins also came from Cuba, which sold many for around $50,000 each.
Lately, opponents of the swim programs have enlisted United States officials, alleging that American citizens at Dolphin Discovery in Isla Mujeres have bought dolphins from Cuba in violation of the trade embargo. Mike Wood, a senior official at the company, denied the allegations. Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the United States Treasury Department, confirmed that Dolphin Discovery was being investigated for possible violations.
Mexican parks in turn do a brisk business selling trained dolphins for as much as $90,000 each, particularly to an eager market in the Caribbean. The Mexican programs are rivaled only in the Caribbean, where the industry is facing similar opposition, sometimes in a frightening way.
[The police in St. Lucia are investigating the killing on Sept. 17 of Jane Tipson, a British animal rights advocate who led opposition to the spread of swim programs. Neither suspect nor motive has been identified.]
International rules limit the sale of dolphins to numbers that do not affect local populations. With Cuba limited to 10 a year and the Mexican ban on local capture, parks are looking elsewhere.
In late July, 28 dolphins arrived at Parque Nizuc here from the Solomon Islands. Opponents of the dolphin parks say these were part of a mass capture of 200 dolphins that flouted the international regulations. Executives at the Wet 'n' Wild park here said they had permits from the Solomon Islands, and Mexican officials said the animals were imported with the proper documentation and veterinary tests.
Legal papers filed by Ms. Alaniz's group cite an e-mail from the British high commissioner for the Solomon Islands, in which he said the country's civil war had left the government in such chaos that the official who authorizes dolphin exports was unaware of the sale to Mexico.
One of the dolphins died days after its arrival, while a local dolphin perished three weeks later. [Mexican environmental officials said on Sept. 29 that two dolphins at an aquatic park in La Paz in Baja California had died recently, one from a blocked esophagus and the other from an infection, according to The Associated Press.]
Mauricio Martínez, director general of the Wet 'n' Wild park, said the most recent death was caused by a stomach ulcer brought on by stress. He blamed the government and animal rights groups for "provoking" the death with unnecessary and burdensome requirements. He said 60,000 people swam with dolphins at the park last year without harm to animals or humans.
"We are convinced if you have contact with wild animals your knowledge and respect for wildlife will increase," he said. "We have a program of high educational content and have trained people who are capable."
Tourists who swam with the animals at various parks said that the educational component was minimal, but were excited about the experience nonetheless. "I like it," said Paola Maraga, a tourist from Rome. "It is always nice to see animals and human beings play together."
But several trainers said tourists were unaware that sometimes the animals turned aggressive. Worse, they added, most trainers have only a basic knowledge about dolphins. One trainer recalled a park where the head trainer regularly used "stick therapy" to discipline animals by repeatedly beating the surface of the water until the dolphin retreated to a holding pen. People like Ric O'Barry, a former trainer on the "Flipper" television show, are particularly infuriated by the parks, and the poor training. "It's always sad when a dolphin dies," said Mr. Barry, who is now a consultant to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which has taken a lead role in the fight here. "There is something obscene about a magnificent creature dying in an amusement park."
The sight of six dolphins at the Interactive Aquarium in Cancún - a pool nestled among the T-shirt shops and restaurants at a mall - visibly angers him. "The reality is they are all going to die there if you stick around long enough," he said.
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