Dana Gentry

(Nevada Current) Of the fifteen dolphins born at the Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip since 1991, 11 are dead, having lived an average of just under eight years, well below the 30-year life expectancy of bottlenose dolphins.

The dolphin exhibit closed this week after the third death in less than six months. Maverick, 19, and K2, 11, died in September. Bella, 13, died in April. All three were born at the Mirage.

“Given the Mirage has only been open for 30 years, most of the dolphins should still be alive. Certainly the ones who were born there should still be alive,” says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C. “If you’re protecting them from predators and food shortages, and all the things that threaten them out in the wild, they should live longer than they do in the wild.”

MGM Resorts International did not respond to requests for an interview.

In the dolphin attraction’s three decades,16 of its 23 dolphins (70%) have died, according to Ceta-Base, a non-profit that tracks data at marine mammal attractions.

Duchess, who was captured in the wild in 1981, is the Mirage’s longest living dolphin, followed by Huf-n-Puf, who was born at the Mirage in 2000. Three other five surviving dolphins are five years-old and under.

“There are all sorts of statistical reasons why you have to be careful with the inferences you draw,” cautions Rose. “But with a species that can live to be 65, I could make a good argument that they should all still be alive.”

Rose says there are several dozen captive dolphin facilities in the U.S., all accredited.

“But there should be no facilities in the desert. That’s just stupid,” she says.  “As a professional biologist, it’s offensive to me that the industry thinks it’s appropriate for these animals to be out in the desert.”

The Blackfish Effect

Cetacean attractions and captive breeding programs such as the one at the Mirage have long fallen out of favor with the public.

“The ‘Blackfish effect’ really changed the entire public mindset on orcas, but it spilled over a bit into dolphins,” Rose says of the documentary revealing the trauma suffered by whales in captivity.

Mexico City has banned dolphin attractions. Brazil, Canada, India, and the United Kingdom have banned captive dolphin and whale attractions. But the practice remains permissible in the U.S.

A 2018 study published by the National Library of Medicine found 60.9% of respondents were not likely to visit a marine mammal park with captive whales. However, 60.3% said they were likely to visit a ‘swim with the dolphins’ attraction, such as the one at the Mirage. Americans were more likely to visit such an attraction than other nationalities surveyed.

Some travel companies have abandoned affiliations with marine mammal attractions. In 2019,  Richard Branson announced Virgin Holidays was ending “the sales and promotion of tourism attractions that involve captive cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins.”

Rose says the attraction has given the Mirage, and by extension, Las Vegas, a bad name.

“There are people who won’t go to the Mirage because it’s got dolphins, lions, and tigers, and that’s unacceptable,” she says. “The zeitgeist really has shifted. There are certain animals – elephants, tigers, whales, dolphins – the American public is not comfortable with for entertainment. It’s why SeaWorld made the decision they did.”

Sea World announced in 2016 that it was ending its captive breeding program for whales, given public criticism of their treatment. Animal activists are calling for an end to the park’s dolphin shows, as well.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority did not respond to questions about the dolphin deaths potentially damaging the city’s reputation.

Advertising guru Billy Vassiliadis, whose R&R Partners creates the LVCVA’s marketing campaigns, also did not respond to requests for an interview.

The Mirage has stressed the importance of its dolphin habitat in research to benefit the propagation of wild populations.

“There is no evidence of a decline in the number of wild bottlenose dolphins that would justify the keeping and breeding of dolphins in captivity to help replenish wild populations,” says the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the largest animal welfare charity in the United Kingdom. “To justify the keeping of a highly intelligent animal with complex social structures and who naturally travels long distances for conservation purposes, the species would need to be severely threatened.”

‘Will they stay or will they go, now?’

The Hard Rock, which is in the process of purchasing the Mirage, has refused to say what is to become of the dolphins or the big cats in the Secret Garden, remnants of Siegfried and Roy’s reign on the Strip.

“We continue to respect the Nevada Gaming Control Board regulatory process and are not commenting on future plans at this time,” Gina Massiel Cadahia, vice president of Brand Reputation, said in a statement. The GCB has no such restriction on applicant comments.

“I found Hard Rock’s answer a little silly. I doubt they (gaming regulators) care about animals,” Rose said. “Unless you’re publicly beheading tigers, I can’t imagine that you could bring Nevada’s gaming industry into disrepute.”

Nevada gaming regulation does require licensees to conduct suitable operations. What the traveling public found suitable in 1990 is not necessarily the same today.

“This would be a great time for the Board to drop a fine on them,” says former gaming executive and one-time California Gambling Control Commissioner Richard Schuetz. “The publicity alone would let them know clearly that this type of behavior is wholly inappropriate and needs to be addressed, assuming that three dolphins dying in seemingly close proximity is indicative of a problem.”

The Gaming Control Board had no comment on potential action against MGM Resorts International regarding the dolphin exhibit.

Steve Wynn to the rescue?

Las Vegas has former hotelier Steve Wynn to thank or blame for the Mirage dolphins, depending on your point of view.

“Steve Wynn probably didn’t know the suffering involved for the dolphins in captivity,” says longtime animal activist Linda Faso.  “But with Free Willy and Blackfish viewed by millions, people have a better understanding of why they belong in the ocean and not in a pool filled with chemicals.”

Faso says the plight of the dolphins presents an opportunity for Wynn to “get some good press for a change” by arranging for a safe haven for the dolphins. “How wonderful it would be if he would offer to pay for transport of the dolphins to a sea pen.”

Rose says the National Aquarium is “very close to at least identifying” a safe site for a coastal dolphin sanctuary, but the effort is years away from fruition.

The Mirage or Hard Rock could provide their own sanctuary for the dolphins, she says, or partner with the National Aquarium. “Or they could simply send them to another facility that isn’t in the desert. That’s my least favorite option, but it’s an option.”