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Date: 16 July 2011 By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
SeaWorld Orlando is preparing to open a new medical facility for stranded dolphins, two decades after the marine park stopped taking in wild dolphins that washed ashore because of fears that viruses could spread to its captive-animal populations.
In the southeastern corner of the park, far out of sight of the more than 5 million people who visit SeaWorld every year, crews are putting the finishing touches on the complex — a kind of quarantined dolphin hospital, with its own water-filtration and sewage systems, food-preparation areas and employee showers.
The facility's 40,000-gallon pool is large enough to hold cetaceans as large as a 13-foot pilot whale or as many as five bottlenose dolphins at once. It has been built on the piece of land that once held stables for Clydesdale horses that belonged to Anheuser-Busch Cos., SeaWorld's former owner.
National Marine Fisheries Service SeaWorld expects the facility to open within a matter of weeks, as soon as it receives final approval from the federal government. There is talk that a pilot-whale calf recently rescued in the Florida Keys could be the first animal to use the facility.
By law, any animals recovering in the facility cannot be displayed in public.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, a company best known for performances by captivekiller whales, says the project is part of a long-standing commitment to preserving wild animals, too. The Orlando-based theme-park operator says it spends several million dollars a year on conservation, research, rescue and rehab, and that it has rescued more than 18,000 animals during its history. The company generates about $1.2 billion a year in revenue.
"This is what we do," said Brad Andrews, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Rescuing stranded marine mammals, he added, "gives us an extremely interesting example of what's going on with the wild populations. They're like the canaries in the coal mine as they come up on shore."
An average of 51 live cetaceans — whales, dolphins or porpoises — are stranded on Florida shores every year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which analyzed data from 2002 to 2010. A third of them are typically transferred to rehab facilities.
Many years ago, SeaWorld Orlando accepted such sick or injured animals into its facilities for medical care. But it abruptly halted the practice about 20 years ago.
That decision followed a deadly outbreak in the Miami Seaquarium, where a number of captive dolphins and other marine mammals died after contracting a measleslike virus known as "morbillivirus" from some rescued pilot whales.
Multiple morbillivirus outbreaks have also been documented in the wild, including one that killed more than 1,000 dolphins along the Atlantic Coast. Scientists have even discovered cases in which diseases, such as brucellosis, have passed from cetacean to human.
"Cetaceans brought to a rehabilitation facility have no medical history and may carry diseases communicable to other marine mammals, other animals or humans," the Fisheries Service writes in a policy guide for marine-mammal-rehab facilities.
SeaWorld says it is taking extensive precautions to keep its dolphin-rehab complex isolated from its captive populations. SeaWorld locally has 114 captive cetaceans, spread among SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica andDiscovery Cove.
The cetacean rehab pool is entirely self-contained, unlike existing rehab pools for sea turtles and manatees, which are linked to the park's central water systems. The facility is equipped with three giant tanks that can be used to drain the pool and sterilize the water. It has its own records room and storage building and is surrounded by an 8-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire.
SeaWorld says it has even installed separate locks that can't be opened by any of the park's master keys.
Some animal-rights activists say they think SeaWorld's ultimate goal is to add more whales and dolphins to its captive populations, both to add genetic diversity for breeding programs and to expand the size of its collections as it prepares to build new marine parks overseas.
The activists say that taking in sick animals and nursing them back to health is a subtle way for SeaWorld to add new animals, one that does not risk the public backlash that would accompany any attempt to capture a healthy animal from the wild. SeaWorld says it hasn't collected an animal from the wild since the late 1970s.
"Possession is nine-tenths of the law," said Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer in Fort Lauderdale who has become a critic of the marine-park industry. "The liability for harming your healthy captive animals is enormous. Why else would they risk it?"
SeaWorld says critics' claims are unfounded. The company notes that, of the small number of cetaceans taken to rehab facilities each year, an even smaller number ultimately remain in captivity.
Of the more than 200 cetaceans across the entire company, only five were sick or injured animals that were rescued from the wild. That includes three dolphins at SeaWorld San Antonio and one at SeaWorld Orlando, and a pilot whale nicknamed "Sully" at SeaWorld San Diego.
SeaWorld says its real motivation is to save more stranded dolphins by building a facility that is both closer to the Atlantic Ocean coast than most other rehab facilities in the state and home to some of the world's leading marine-mammal veterinarians.
"The goal here is to take care of the animal, treat the animal and let it go," Andrews said. "If somebody thinks, by building a pool and picking up stranded animals every once in a while, that they're going to build a collection of marine mammals, they're sadly mistaken."