The dolphin exhibit at the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas has temporarily shut down after a third dolphin death in less than half a year. K2 was an 11-year-old “energetic” dolphin that died on September 24 after showing signs of illness, reports Dina Fine Maron for National Geographic. Nineteen-year-old Maverick died earlier in September after receiving treatment for a lung infection and Bella died at 13 after receiving treatment for gastroenteritis.
Estimates for dolphin life expectancy vary, but per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these cetaceans can live at least 40 years, with some surviving 60 or more years. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums states their average life expectancy in U.S. zoological facilities is now about 28 to 29 years.
Dolphins at the Mirage have a history of dying much sooner. Of the fifteen dolphins born at the hotel since the exhibit’s opening in 1991, 11 have died at an average of about 8 years old, reports Nevada Current’s Dana Gentry.
“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,” Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., tells the Current. “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.”
Dolphin advocate and Vegas resident Shelly Rae tells the Washington Post’s Andrea Sachs that the facility is known as the ‘Dolphin Death Pool’ among the animal rights community because of the “high percentage of dolphin deaths that were reported in the late 90s and early 00s.”
But Mirage officials tell National Geographic the dolphins are well cared for, with daily health inspections and weekly vet exams. The facility has four interconnected pools that are shaded by surrounding trees and buildings; the pool depths range from 14 to 23 feet deep and the pool temperatures are kept at 78 degrees Fahrenheit, Dave Blasko, executive director of animal care at the Mirage tells the publication.
“We are in the process of working with the National Marine Mammal Foundation to conduct a complete review and assessment of all aspects of our dolphin-care program,” Blasko says in a statement to National Geographic.
Countries across the world—including Brazil, Canada, India and the United Kingdom—have banned captive cetacean attractions, the Current reports. But the practice remains popular in the United States, with about 400 dolphins living in tourism facilities, per a World Animal Protection report.
Proponents of the bans say the practice is cruel to the highly social animals, which can travel up to 80 miles a day in the wild, per the Humane Society of the United States.
Seven bottlenose dolphins now live at the Mirage along with four leopards, two lions, eight tigers, a two-toed sloth, an umbrella cockatoo and a few hundred aquarium fish, per National Geographic. The Mirage is in the process of being bought by Hard Rock International for $1.075 billion, leaving the animals’ fate unclear.
“This needs to be a turning point,” Cameron Harsh, programs director at the U.S. office of World Animal Protection, tells the Post. “We need more wildlife protection, not wildlife exploitation.”