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by Diego Cevallos

Whale Mexican Breeding Grounds Threatened

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Mexico is one of the few countries in Latin America that allows the operation of dolphin aquariums -- tourist venues that rake in high profits and where these sea mammals often live in severely inadequate conditions, according to studies.

In Brazil and Chile, dolphin aquariums are prohibited, in Argentina there are two sites with nine dolphins, and a single Venezuela aquarium has just four.

The 20 dolphin aquariums in Mexico -- where they are presented as circus acts or are used, for their supposed curative benefits, for swimming with people, or as simple entertainment -- are an example of a business that should not exist anywhere, says Yolanda Alaniz, one of the authors of the book "Delfinarios" (Dolphin Aquariums), the product of seven years of research.

More than half of the dolphins kept in captivity in Mexico since the 1970s have died early deaths from pneumonia, stress, gastric illness or trauma, Alaniz told Tierramerica.

Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals that, in the wild, develop complex social networks. In captivity, most of their instinctive behaviors are repressed, they are forced to interact with humans, and they lose their ability to swim long distances and to work as a group to catch fish.

Chile enacted a regulation in 2005 that "prohibits the capture, captivity and permanent or temporary holding of all types of cetaceans for public exhibition or other ends associated with their use by man, whatever the characteristics of the installations in which they are intended to be kept."

This rule, which under exception allows holding the sea mammals in captivity temporarily and only as long as the intention is their reinsertion in their natural habitat, was the result of a notorious case of maltreatment in 1996.

That year, in the northern city of Puerto Iquique, a travelling show had imported two dolphins from Cuba, one of which died before arriving. The other was barely surviving in a municipal pool, refusing to eat.

In the past 12 years, at last 11 projects for dolphin aquariums have been presented in Chilean cities, for recreational and therapeutic purposes alike. All have been rejected.

Chile "has a cutting edge position in the region. It is an example to follow when it comes to cetacean conservation," Elsa Carrera, director of the non-governmental Cetacean Conservation Center, told Tierramerica.

Brazil has a ban on dolphin aquariums too, but does allow centers that provide temporary care for dolphins.

The problems involving dolphins in Brazil have more to do with their accidental or intentional capture on the high seas. Catching dolphins is prohibited, as in most Latin America countries, including Mexico, home to the highest number of dolphin aquariums in the region.

In 2007 images were released of some 80 dead dolphins on a boat along the coast of the northern Brazilian state of Amapa, which caused an outcry from environmentalists and the public.

Oceanographer Jose Martins da Silva Junior told Tierramerica that despite the bans the capture of dolphins continues. The eyes and genitals of the mammals are removed and sold as amulets that hucksters promise will bring wealth and attract women.

In Argentina, admission to the only two dolphin aquariums costs 14 dollars. They are located in Buenos Aires province and offer visitors the typical dolphin circus show.

Alejandro Arias, of the Argentine Wildlife Foundation's marine program, told Tierramerica that the "regulation of the aquariums in Argentina is better than in other countries."

"The dolphins receive adequate treatment, (although) rather than on principle it's for commercial reasons. It is too expensive to buy and maintain a dolphin to then let it die or mistreat it," he said, pointing out that buying a dolphin in Argentina can cost as much as $20,000.

Venezuela does allow dolphin aquariums, but bans their capture. However, there are just four dolphins that are part of the attractions at Diverland, on the resort Isla de Margarita in the Caribbean Sea.

The mammals are used for brief nighttime shows, for swimming with visitors for $70 a turn, and for therapy for children with autism, Down syndrome or other disorders, their trainer Edwin Castillo explained in a Tierramerica interview.

With extensive documentation, case follow-up and opinions from experts from many countries, the book "Delfinarios" casts into doubt the supposed effectiveness of therapy involving dolphins. There are no rigorous studies about dolphin therapy's effects. The argument is that contact with any domesticated animal in an environment different from the patient's usual surroundings has some benefit.

There are many studies that show that dolphins, whose very nature is contrary to remaining enclosed in pools, secrete high quantities of substances indicating nervousness and stress when they interact with humans.

There are many cases in which, despite being subjected to conditioned acts, dolphins have shown aggression against humans in dolphin aquariums or similar circumstances.

Alaniz, a doctor who conducted the dolphin research with bio-ethicist Laura Rojas, maintains that in the aquariums there is "chronic mistreatment in all senses," but that they continue operating because of irregularities and corruption involving the authorities.

Officially reported are some 270 dolphins in captivity in Mexico. From 1997 to 2005, 48 died. But the book's authors, who visited all operating dolphin aquariums, argue that the numbers fall short of reality, because the people in charge of the aquariums are hiding information.

Even so, and with reports from officials or the businesses themselves, it was concluded that respiratory illnesses are the leading cause of death among dolphins in captivity in Mexico, followed by reasons related to poor care, such as trauma to the head, intestinal obstruction from ingestion of foreign objects, and asphyxiation.

Just four to six percent of the deaths were due to natural causes, say the researchers.

Mexican law allows the capture of dolphins only for scientific purposes, but also accepts the animals' use in travelling or permanent shows. Until 2001, when dolphin aquariums came under regulation, such businesses had grown without any standards.

Dolphin aquariums can no longer operate in this country using captured animals or dolphins imported from the Caribbean or Japan, as was the case until the 1990s. The businesses can only use those that were born in captivity.

Alaniz and Rojas charge that such places, whose purpose is to make high profits, are not designed to hold dolphins "in minimal conditions of well being," but rather "to make it easy for the users and for the people in charge of their care." Dolphin aquariums should simply not exist, they argue.

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Albion Monitor   February 7, 2008   (

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