K2 was fun to be around. The bottlenose dolphin was an energetic 11-year-old boy, a young adult of dolphin age, who was born at The Mirage casino on the Las Vegas Strip and has lived there his entire life.
Visitors have sometimes paid up to $450 to have brief in-water interactions with him and other bottlenose dolphins. His masters said he talked often and made people smile.
But earlier this month, K2 started showing signs of illness. He didn’t want to eat his fish. Blood work showed his liver enzymes were elevated and internal imaging prompted treatment for a respiratory illness. His care team administered antifungals, antibiotics, and nebulizer breathing treatments.
Yet K2 died on September 24, marking the third dolphin death at the Mirage in just six months. Maverick, a 19-year-old dolphin, died earlier in September following treatment for a lung infection. And Bella, 13, died in April after being treated for gastroenteritis.
“That’s an exceptional number of deaths in such a short time,” says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal specialist at the Animal Welfare Institute, in Washington, DC. All three dolphins were in their “prime age”, she said. The overall average lifespan of bottlenose dolphins is 20 to 30 years, with a maximum lifespan of 65 years.
The Mirage animal exhibit, which is managed by MGM Resorts International, has temporarily closed so that independent experts can investigate the deaths; ticket sales have been suspended until October 9.
“We are in the process of working with the National Marine Mammal Foundation to complete a comprehensive review and evaluation of all aspects of our dolphin care program,” said Dave Blasko, executive director of animal care at The Mirage, in a statement. National geographic. Reviewers will review the establishment’s veterinary care; animal husbandry and behavior; water quality and filtration and the environment in general, he says.
Seven live bottlenose dolphins remain at the exhibit, along with four leopards, two lions, eight tigers, a two-toed sloth, an umbrella cockatoo, and around 350 aquarium fish.
A story of the dead
The Mirage Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat has a long record of dolphin deaths: K2 was the 16th dolphin to die at the facility in its 31-year history, including the two fatalities this month, according to Cetabase. org, a non-profit database that tracks marine mammals in captivity. The dolphins, a mix of wild-born and captive-born animals, died of multiple causes, including pneumonia, “severe chronic necrotizing pancreatitis” and age-related heart failure. (Blasko says one of the deaths occurred while a dolphin was not in their care, and another was a newborn that died after 14 days.)
Blasko did not share K2, Maverick and Bella’s medical records with National geographic. But Rose, a marine mammal expert, says a major problem with the Mirage’s dolphin exhibit is that it exposes the animals to Las Vegas’ extremely hot climate. A common complaint among animal welfare advocates is that the entirely outdoor exhibit does not provide adequate shade for the Mirage’s dolphins. In addition, conditions in man-made pools cannot mimic those in nature, where dolphins can dive deep into water away from heat, swim great distances and live in complex social groups, she says. (Learn about the conditions faced by captive animals for wildlife tourism.)
According to Blasko, the Mirage animals are well cared for, with weekly veterinary exams and daily health inspections. The facility’s four interconnected pools, which range in depth from 14 to 23 feet, are kept at 78 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, he says, and the animals are also protected from the sun by surrounding palm trees, a few umbrellas, and neighboring buildings. , which can cast small shadows, depending on the time of day.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, during routine inspections of the facility for humane animal handling, care, and treatment, reported no sun damage to the animals’ skin or eyes. , he notes. The agency also did not report any other animal welfare issues, including during its last inspection which took place just two days before K2 died.
A troubled future
The Mirage deaths come at a time when some countries in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly banning cetacean captivity and entertainment. In 2019, Canada banned the trade, possession, capture and breeding of all cetaceans for entertainment, with supporters of the law saying it is both unethical and cruel to keep these highly intelligent and social animals in tanks. In the United States, however, dolphin programs continue to be popular – with 446 bottlenose dolphins living in captivity, according to the National Marine Mammal Inventory. (Discover how the treatment of human conditions with dolphin interactions has gone global, despite the lack of science behind it.)
The future of the Mirage animals remains murky. In late 2021, MGM announced that it had reached an agreement with Hard Rock International – known for its chain of Hard Rock Cafes – to transfer ownership of The Mirage for $1.075 billion. But the deal has yet to be finalized, and Hard Rock has not specified what it plans to do with the animals at the site or how it will protect the animals during planned future construction. (Gina Cadahia, spokesperson for Hard Rock, contacted by National Geographic, declined to comment on the company’s future plans.)
Local animal welfare advocates, such as Linda Faso, have proposed that the remaining dolphins from the Mirage be sent to a sanctuary. Richard O’Barry, founder and director of the California-based Dolphin Project and dolphin trainer for the 1960s television series Pinballpush for that too.
“Not all captive dolphins can be released, but all captive dolphins can be transferred to a sanctuary to live [their] lives with quality and dignity,” says O’Barry. “That’s what we’d like to see happen to casino dolphins living in the desert of Las Vegas.”