Dolphinaris Arizona has announced the facility will be temporarily closing beginning on Friday, following last week's announcement that a fourth dolphin at the attraction had passed away in less than two years.
According to the statement, an outside panel of experts will be reevaluating "the facility, environmental factors, and all aspects of animal welfare at the facility." The investigative panel reportedly includes veterinarians, pathologists, water quality experts and animal behavior specialists.
Since the facility opened on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in October 2016, four dolphins have died while at Dolphinaris Arizona. The most recent death was reported on January 31, when Dolphinaris announced that 22-year-old bottlenose dolphin Kai had to be euthanized.
- Bodie: The male bottlenose dolphin died on Sept. 23, 2017, from a "rare muscle disease," the facility said.
- Alia: The female bottlenose dolphin died on May 22, 2017, from an "acute bacterial infection" that "spread quickly through her body," the facility said.
- Khloe: The female bottlenose dolphin died on Dec. 31, 2018. "Khloe came to Dolphinaris with a pre-existing chronic health condition caused by a parasite called Sarcocystis, which weakens an animal’s immune system. While we wanted the necropsy to tell us more, sometimes tests are not definitive. In fact, it is common that tests never pinpoint exactly what caused an animal’s passing, particularly one like Khloe who had lived with a health condition for six years," the facility said.
- Kai: The male bottlenose dolphin was euthanized on Jan. 31, 2019, after he showed signs of "difficulty swimming, eating and breathing" and his health continued to decline, the facility said. A necropsy (an animal autopsy) is pending and the results have not been released.
Dolphin Quest, one of the companies responsible for loaning dolphins to Dolphinaris, said on Saturday they would be terminating their animal loan agreement with the facility .
In their Tuesday statement, Dolphinaris said two of their remaining four dolphins which were on loan from Dolphin Quest will be transferred back to the company, a move Dolphinaris said would most likely be permanent. When reached Tuesday evening, a Dolphin Quest representative said plans for its dolphins, Noelani and Liko, had not been finalized.
The other two remaining dolphins will reportedly be transferred to another, unspecified, facility while Dolphinaris is evaluated.
A spokesperson for Dolphinaris told ABC15 they do not yet know how long the attraction will be closed, saying, "it depends on how long the evaluation takes and what is discovered."
“We are heartbroken by the loss of our dolphin friends and are grateful to the efforts of our staff and partners during these difficult times -- especially our trainers, who have given so much love, time and energy to caring for our dolphins and educating our guests,” says Christian Schaeffer de Leon, general manager. “We hope to find a long term solution for the welfare of our dolphins.”
"I am hopeful that no more dolphins will be sent here. Two of them are definitely going back to Dolphin Quest where they came from," said Danielle Riley with Plea for the Sea.
Riley said Plea for the Sea is one of many organizations that has been applying pressure to Dolphinaris in the wake of the four dolphins dying.
The Animal Defense League of AZ, the Animal Welfare Institute, Dolphin Free AZ, Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project, and the Lightkeepers Foundation have all been involved.
"We are hopeful, but until Dolphinaris comes out and says that we are permanently closing, we are going to be watching with a watchful eye," said Riley.
Kathleen Dezio is the president of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an international accrediting body for parks and zoos.
"The zoological community is very concerned anytime there is an unusual death of an animal and certainly when there have been four deaths in a short period of time," Dezio told ABC15.
Dolphinaris is not accredited through the AMMPA. However, the facility in which Dolphinaris says two of its surviving dolphins are returning to, Dolphin Quest, is accredited through the association.
Dezio says the association was not formally asked to participate in their investigation, but they have participated in other animal death investigations in the past.
She spoke with ABC15 generally about what other investigations entail.
"You want to look comprehensively with the experts in every specialty so that you can consider every factor and can rule factors out," Dezio said.
Dezio says experts must do a top to bottom search, looking at medical records, food and water quality.
"A lot of that would depend on what came back from the necropsy report," Dezio said. "That will tell us certain things that we'd want to look more closely at."