Op-Ed: Mirage’s ‘Humane’ Label is Nothing but an Illusion

You’ve probably heard that American Humane, the 140-year-old organization that routinely inspects television and film productions (amongst other welfare projects it helms), recently gave Mirage’s Secret Garden Dolphin Habitat a glowing “humane” certification.

For a refresher, this is the Mirage Dolphin Habitat, the MGM-owned, swim-with dolphinarium just a skip away from the casinos.

Mirage in December, 2011.© Holly Hayes via CC BY-NC 2.0.

In a press release, Robin Ganzert, current CEO of American Humane, explains that their decision was a sound one, using a “science-based certification process [that] involves an exhaustive application, followed by a detailed inspection by independent auditors.”

Seriously? How could anyone call this show humane?

For years, the United States Department of Agriculture’s underfunded and understaffed branch, APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), has repeatedly shown a lack of willpower to force Mirage to build a shade structure for their dolphins. Yet, the Animal Welfare Act has a specific federal mandate where facilities must provide adequate and reliable shade. With the exception of the Medical Pool, Mirage has thus far refused to create such a structure.

With very little rainfall, temperatures reaching well over 100° F (37°C)  in the summer, and having to live in bright blue pools that easily reflect the sunlight, these dolphins aren’t exactly living in paradise. While Atlantic bottlenose live in coastal and Gulf waters, the natural variation of depth and fluctuating water turbidity provides natural shade in the wild. They can also dive up to a depth of 300m (990 ft), based on research on the U.S. Navy’s own dolphins.

Dolphins hanging at the gate; only a temporary area with shade is provided depending the hour of the day. February 2015.© Shelly Rae/Save Mojave Dolphins, used with permission.

A dolphin beaching itself onto the tank ledge, a type of repetitive stress behavior (stereotypy). © Shelly Rae/Save Mojave Dolphins, used with permission.

Ric O’Barry with Dan Blasko, Mirage’s Director of Animal Care in October 2014. Seen here wearing a shady hat and shades, in the shade. © Shelly Rae/Save Mojave Dolphins, used with permission.

Compare that to Mirage’s “Seven Wonders” swimming pool: a quarter of a mile in length, and lots of trees that provide an ample amount of shade.

The Seven Wonders. Courtesy of SpotCoolStuff.

Then there was the Mirage’s handling of the pox issue. While cleared up now, it took a crescendo of grassroots organizations and public outcry to get Mirage from digging in their heels. Beginning in December 2012, one of the Mirage-born dolphins, Maverick, had a case of poxvirus, which manifests as skin lesions. This virus has occurred in captive and wild dolphin populations. It is not a sign of immunosuppression, but it can significantly worsen for captive animals if there are major changes to the water salinity, temperature changes, and periods of significant environmental, physical and/or mental stress.

The virus was also rampant amongst the SeaWorld Orlando bottlenose colony; given that one of Mirage’s (now deceased) dolphins – Beetle – originated from Orlando through a breeding loan, it can be assumed he brought along the pathogen with him.

The grassroots organization, Save Mojave Dolphins, campaigned for two years (2013 and 2014) to pressure Mirage to change the water conditions. When they did, Maverick’s skin condition, in January 2015, finally began to improve. How can one call a facility “knowledgable and humane” when an outside group had to get local media involved in order to make The Mirage do the right thing for their money-making animals?

Timeline of Maverick’s pox virus and recovery: December 2012 (left), August 2014 (middle), and January 2015 (right), after the water chemistry and temperature was finally changed. © Shelly Rae/Save Mojave Dolphins, used with permission.

American Humane’s certification program was founded by beef industry figure Tim Amlaw. It was not created in the interest of animals, but for industries that use animals. According to Free From Harm, a livestock and farm animal rescue organization, AH “never audits slaughterhouses and [sets] no limits on how far animals can be transported.” This humane certification “is extremely popular with chicken farmers hoping to avoid pasture requirements.”

To top it off, AH has had a lurid and damning history of underreporting (or intentionally overlooking) animal abuse among film sets, while for decades, it was “quick to defend big budget studios it is supposed to police.” 

Knowing this, what scientific-based method did AH use to conclude Mirage is a humane establishment?

According to the facility’s current Director of Animal Care (and former director of animal training for SeaWorld Orlando’s orcas and dolphins) Dan Blasko, all that was needed was to “submit at least 50 pages of documentation” and grant three of the same auditors, known for rubber-stamping those cheating poultry farmers, full access.

Rigorous scientific process in action, everyone!

Since 2000, American Humane has been giving farms and other agricultural operations the ‘humane’ certification. However, it has only been in the past year that the organization launched a new program, the Humane Conservation, which granted the same seal of approval for zoos, aquaria and marine parks.

And who helms the committee that makes these sound decisions? Marine park and zoo industry officials, of course. Dan Blasko is in it. As are Grey Stafford, current president of the International Marine Animal Trainer Association (IMATA), Jim McBain, former Director of Veterinary Service at SeaWorld, and others who benefit from marine parks.

Humane Conservation approved several other U.S. marine parks, including these two recipients worth mentioning:

  • Dolphin Quest Bermuda, a marine park and swim-with facility, along with its sister parks in Oahu and Hawai’i, founded by retired veterinarian Jay Sweeney. While treating captive animals, he made the bulk of his living capturing bottlenose in the Gulf states, and even made quite a pretty penny (on the side) by brokering dolphins caught in drives in Taiji and Iki Island for U.S. marine parks.
  • Georgia Aquarium was given the Humane Certification as well. Apparently AH was not informed (or maybe they just didn’t care) about how Georgia fought (and lost) in the courts to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia (which had been held in cramped, squalid conditions, all while Georgia Aquarium footed the feeding bill). Four belugas died, both before and during the legal battle. One in particular, Tatiana, died after being repeatedly picked on by tank mates. (She had sported a wound that received no medical attention. It subsequently became infected and necrotized until a massive part of her tail stock and flank became a rotting crater.)

Belugas at holding tanks in Utrish Dolphinarium, originally earmarked for Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld, Shedd and Mystic Aquariums. Screencap from the documentary, “Born To Be Free;” via Maxim Lanovoy.

So why do Mirage owners continue to resist improving these horrid conditions? It can’t be the cost, as MGM paid their CEO Jim Murren $16.6 million, a 25% salary increase. No, it’s likely they’ve learned that it’s easier to profit from a dolphin’s frozen smile than to address any real concerns about the health and welfare of their animals.

Don’t fall for it.


Featured photo: Beetle mouthing the gate wiring at MGM’s Mirage Secret Dolphin Habitat, summer 2015/© Shelly Rae- Free Mojave Dolphins/used with permission.

The author would like to thank Shelly Rae for granting permission to use her photos and taking the time to fact check.

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About Jordan Waltz

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I am an artist by day, researcher by night. I served as archivist and researcher for the documentary films "Blackfish" and "Vancouver Aquarium: Uncovered." Most of my writings cater towards the lesser-known corners of the cetacean captivity issue.

Author: Jordan Waltz
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