LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Eleven of 16 dolphins housed in a dolphin exhibit at a Las Vegas Strip casino have died since the facility opened in 1990, according to federal records and interviews with resort officials.
The records obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal show most of the dolphin deaths at The Mirage's Dolphin Habitat were attributed to natural causes, and that casino officials have taken steps to change the way the dolphins are cared for and the habitat is maintained.
Mirage officials say the exhibit, which features 2.5 million gallons of water, has an exemplary reputation for animal care in the marine mammal display industry.
But animal welfare advocates contend dolphins never were made for such public displays and say they're not impressed with The Mirage's efforts.
"It's not simply a case of bad luck that that number has died," said Dena Jones, program manager for the World Society for the Protection of Animals' U.S. office in Framingham, Mass. Captive dolphins die regularly at relatively young ages ... The people (at The Mirage) may be well-meaning and the facility may be well-run, but these type of captive environments can't reproduce conditions in the wild.''
The newspaper obtained records from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration that include an inventory of the dolphins at The Mirage and cause of death for those that died. All of The Mirage's dolphins were either obtained from other facilities or bred at the facility.
The causes of the dolphins' deaths included severe chronic pancreatitis, a pulmonary abscess, respiratory problems and pneumonia. Two of the dolphin deaths could be a result of hereditary problems passed down from another dolphin in the habitat, Mirage spokesman Gordon Absher said.
Three of the 11 deceased animals were estimated to be older than the average life expectancy of 25 years when they died.
Three other dolphins born at The Mirage are alive and well at the exhibit. A fourth dolphin named Duchess, born about 1975, is also doing well. A fifth dolphin at the exhibit, Lightning, was obtained through an exchange with a Florida facility, and is healthy.
In December 2005, the USDA and The Mirage entered into a settlement agreement in which the hotel agreed to make undisclosed changes as to how it cares for the dolphins at the exhibit.
"The parties recognize that the licensee has voluntarily taken steps to evaluate and to improve its operations," the agreement states.
Mirage officials declined to disclose the changes.
The casino did acknowledge that it occasionally allows VIP guests to swim with the dolphins.
"It's the mutual existence of meeting the requests of your VIP guests while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the facility," Absher said of the celebrity swim-alongs.
The Mirage has the proper federal permit to let individuals swim with the dolphins, and hotel officials are adamant that the dolphins never are put in harm's way.
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