Dolphins are dying at an Arizona facility. Here's what experts have to say

Lorraine Longhi and Nathan J. Fish

PHOENIX – One expert suggests dolphins stressed from moving and interacting with people may have led to the problems at an aquatic facility in Arizona, which announced Tuesday it would temporarily close after half of its eight dolphins have died since opening in 2016.

Another marine mammal expert questions the risks of dust and spores in the desert air.

But other experts say there are benefits to dolphins living in captivity, including better health care and a steady supply of food. They caution that people should wait to see what scientists called in to investigate at Dophinaris Arizona uncover.

"Any zoo population can experience an unfortunate, and from our perspective, sad string of mortalities, just as it can and does occur in wild populations," said Grey Stafford, who was the general manager of Dolphinaris Arizona when it first opened and is now a wildlife advocate.

The latest dolphin to die, 22-year-old Kai, passed away one month after Khloe, an 11-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, died Dec. 30. The remaining four dolphins will be moved to other facilities as Dolphinaris Arizona temporarily shutters while experts evaluate the facility, its environment and the dolphins' welfare.

The controversy comes as views on captivity and animals used for entertainment continue to evolve. Protesters opposed to Dolphinaris gathered near the facility last weekend and plan to be there again Saturday.

How the dolphins got to the desert

The Arizona location, on the Salt River Reservation near Scottsdale, was the company's first venue outside of Mexico. Five others operate primarily on the Yucatan Peninsula in tourist areas near Cancun.

Dolphinaris Arizona, which bills itself as "one of the world's leading providers of dolphin experiences," allows visitors to get in the water with the dolphins.

One of the inmates at Dolphinaris Arizona on the Salt
One of the inmates at Dolphinaris Arizona on the Salt

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which monitors animal care under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has not identified any compliance issues in its four past inspections of the Arizona venue. A day after the fourth death, the federal agency said it was "working on the next course of action." It offered no further plan Wednesday.

Dolphinaris executives say they are devastated by the deaths, and are bringing in a slate of experts to figure out what's going on. The experts will include veterinarians, pathologists, water-quality experts and animal-behavior specialists to investigate potential factors contributing to the deaths, according to a statement.

The Arizona Republic asked marine experts to weigh in on the deaths. Here's what they said:

Stress weakening dolphin immune systems

Dolphins at Dolphinaris are probably under an extreme amount of stress, which could lead to compromised immune systems, said Lori Marino, founder of the Whale Sanctuary Project, which is working to create seaside sanctuaries in North America for whales, dolphins and porpoises who are rescued or being retired from entertainment facilities.

The transfer of the dolphins to a new facility with unfamiliar dolphins probably compounded their level of stress, said Marino, who is a neuroscientist and has studied dolphins for 30 years.

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"That's sort of a hidden killer," she said. "Stress, if unabated, leaves the dolphins' immune systems open and vulnerable to all kinds of opportunistic infections."

Marino says that the USDA might not pick up on subtle physiological changes impacting the dolphins during their inspections.

"One thing they probably didn't look at is the state of the animals themselves," Marino said. "That's something the USDA won't pick up on unless they're sensitive to what happens to these animals in these facilities."

But Kathleen Dudzinski, a marine mammal scientist with the Dolphin Communication Project in Florida, said that there have been no studies that have exclusively looked at whether stress in captivity impacts dolphins more than it does in the wild.

"Stress can be caused by positive situations as well as negative situations," Dudzinski said. "It's not something that can be looked at out of context for the setting or situation."

Dudzinski did not want to comment specifically on the Arizona venue until the investigation is complete.

Necropsies, or animal autopsies, have been completed on the first two deaths at Dolphinaris Arizona. Bodie died of a fungal infection in 2017 and Alia died of an acute bacterial infection in 2018.

Transferring dolphins

The dolphins at Dolphinaris came from four different facilities: SeaWorld San Antonio, SeaWorld Orlando, Dolphin Quest Hawaii and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California.

"In their previous locations, the dolphins likely reached some kind of stable level of stress that was able to be handled," Marino said. "After being transferred, put into small pools with other dolphins they don't know and bombarded with people, you open up the risks for all kinds of pathogens."

Dudzinski says that the social interaction among dolphins in captivity is similar to what she has observed among wild dolphins.

Dolphins reside in a fission-fusion society, meaning they do not live in family groups like humans, she said. Instead, they reside in smaller subgroups of dolphins throughout their lifetime that they play, socialize or travel with.

"Shifting dolphins between facilities actually mirrors the fission-fusion nature of dolphin society," Dudzinski said. "Most of the facilities I’m familiar with take into consideration the social dynamics within the groups they manage when coordinating for transfers between facilities."

Two of the dolphins on loan to the facility will be removed after Dolphin Quest terminated its agreement with Dolphinaris earlier this month. The remaining two dolphins will be transferred to another licensed U.S. facility, according to a statement from Dolphinaris.

Germs in the desert

Dolphinaris has faced opposition since its opening was announced, with many critics saying that dolphins do not belong in the desert.

Desert environments carry dust and fungal spores that make people sick with infections like valley fever, said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.

"Dolphins don't belong in the desert," Rose said. "I think it's becoming glaringly obvious that they don't."

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But several whale and dolphin species are found in the northern Gulf of California, one of the most biodiverse bodies of water in the world, which is surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, Stafford said.

Stafford said that it's unclear what the exact cause of the deaths are at Dolphinaris without a full investigation

"On the surface these may suggest an underlying problem or they may simply be a random cluster of unrelated random events, as frustrating and unsatisfying as that may be to the public," he said.

Rose said the Animal Welfare Institute attempted to speak to the Salt River tribe and local authorities about the risks of exposing dolphins to desert bacteria.

A Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.

Life span of dolphins in captivity

The dolphins' interaction with humans also could be leading to infections, Marino said.

Dolphinaris offers several packages where visitors can get into the water with dolphins, touch them and feed them.

These interactions are risky, Marino said, as the possibility of zoonatic disease transmission exists for both the dolphins and humans.

"They're under chronic stress of living in tanks and dealing with people coming into the tanks and petting them," Marino said. "Whenever you have people getting into the water, putting their hand on the animal, you have the possibility of a transfer of disease."

Bottlenose dolphins have a life span that can exceed 40 years, with some living upward of 60 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dolphins in captivity should be living to the maximum age or close to it, but most are not, Marino said.

"They are in captivity, they're protected from predators, they're protected from food shortages, they're protected from storms," Rose said. "You cannot, on one hand, say, 'It's safer in captivity,' and then use wild statistics to justify your dolphins dropping dead at 11."

The four dolphins that died at Dolphinaris Arizona were ages 10 and under, except for the last dolphin, which was 22.

Stafford said that dolphins in human care today live as long, and at some facilities much longer, than their "wild cousins."

Some whale and dolphin species are facing imminent extinction along our coastlines because of a lack of food resources or increased boat traffic, poaching nets and other human activities, Stafford said.

Captive dolphins have access to resources that enhance their quality of life, including quality fish, good health care and choice for social groupings during a large portion of their day, Dudzinski said.

Changing attitudes toward captivity

Changing views on animals used for entertainment and being held in captivity have dominated news headlines in recent years.

The 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which raised concerns about the treatment of orcas at SeaWorld, captured the nation's attention and made a huge dent in the park's attendance and finances. The company subsequently ceased their theatrical orca shows and orca breeding.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore also announced in 2016 that it would move its dolphins to the nation's first oceanside dolphin sanctuary by 2020.

While the U.S. still allows whales and dolphins to perform in facilities such as SeaWorld, last year, a bill to outlaw captivity of whales and dolphins passed in the Canadian Senate and is set to move through the House of Commons by May.

Dudzinski says there's always been discussion about captivity and what's best for the animals. The difference she sees is social media providing a platform for activists.

"Activists are adept at using social media to make the discussion a very emotional argument when I do not think it should be," Dudzinski said. "I’ve met many trainers and caregivers and every one I have met has the utmost respect for the animals in their care."

There are more animals in captivity today that were born there than were caught in the wild, Dudzinski said.

"These animals were born there, this is their home," she said. "What we have is a legacy to make sure these animals have the best life that they can have."

Follow Lorraine Longhi and Nathan J. Fish on Twitter: @lolonghi and @thefishfoto

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Dolphins are dying at an Arizona facility. Here's what experts have to say