The tourists probably never noticed when Pollyanna died at Ocean World--peacefully, say the park’s operators.
But peace is the last thing anti-captivity activists want to give Ocean World, target of numerous protests and a federal investigation into alleged violations and animal abuses.
Activists claim that the 25-year-old marine-theme attraction near downtown Ft. Lauderdale has one of the worst track records among the 16 such attractions in Florida, which has about 40% of the nation’s captive dolphins.
George Boucher, president of the theme park, hired a full-time veterinarian and announced plans to improve water quality and build a 575,000-gallon dolphin pool after the U.S. Department of Agriculture began its probe. He said the critics are out of line.
“The conditions here are better than good,” Boucher said. “If I died and came back as a dolphin, I’d want to be right here at Ocean World.”
Pollyanna, believed to be more than 45 years old, was captured near the Florida Keys in 1966. She spent the rest of her life confined in a space about the size of a back-yard swimming pool.
Millions of park-goers have visited Pollyanna. She was fed regularly, had no fear of predators and died of old age, Boucher said. In the wild, scientists say, dolphins routinely live 20 years and some live more than 45 years.
“Pollyanna died of terminal captivity,” said Russ Rector, a member of the anti-captivity Dolphin Project group and a former Ocean World trainer who cared for Pollyanna from 1968 to 1975. “That animal has been in the pool so long, she wasn’t living. She was merely surviving.”
Although scientists say dolphins routinely swim at depths of 100 to 150 feet, federal standards set in 1972 say only that tanks have to be at least 6 feet deep and 24 feet in diameter.
In December, the USDA said the petting pool failed even that standard and ordered it closed. But to avoid the stress of several moves, the USDA let the 3.5-acre park keep Pollyanna and another dolphin there until a new, 100-foot-wide pool is built this summer.
“I think we all did our best under what authority we have,” said Joseph Walker, USDA’s supervisor for animal care in Tampa, adding that he didn’t believe the small pool had anything to do with Pollyanna’s death.
The USDA won’t comment on its nine-month investigation. The USDA could revoke Ocean World’s exhibition permit or fine it $2,500 a day for each violation. But Ocean World’s owners don’t expect any punishment.
“My clients don’t really view themselves as being in an adversarial position with the department, both formally and informally,” said J. Philip Landsman, an attorney for Ocean World.
Meanwhile, Ocean World is seeking an injunction against further protests by Dolphin Project. Picketers have harassed tourists, and Rector was hauled out by police after he came in wearing a T-shirt that showed a dolphin in a ball and chain, Landsman said.
Pollyanna was one of at least 12 dolphins to die at Ocean World since the National Marine Fisheries Service began requiring such records in 1973. Most of the others died of pneumonia, according to Ocean World. But Landsman praised the park’s record.
“These animals represent a big investment. They’re in the business of protecting them, not harming them,” Landsman said.