Just being in K2’s company was a lot of laughs. Born and raised at The Mirage casino on the Las Vegas Strip, the bottlenose dolphin was an active 11-year-old male, a young adult in dolphin years.
Brief in-water contacts with him and other bottlenose dolphins have fetched up to $450 from tourists. His instructors remarked that he had a lot to say and could make everyone laugh.
K2, however, began displaying symptoms of sickness early this month. Not even his salmon was appetizing to him. His liver enzymes were high, and diagnostic imaging revealed he had a respiratory infection, both of which required treatment. His medical team gave him antibiotics, antifungals, and nebulizer treatments to help him breathe better.
K2 passed away on September 24, making this the third dolphin to pass away at the Mirage in the past six months. After receiving treatment for a lung illness, 19-year-old dolphin Maverick passed away in September. And 13-year-old Bella, hospitalized with stomach flu, passed away in April.
The Mirage claims the dolphins do not need more shade because of the umbrellas, palm trees, and neighboring buildings.
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Naomi Rose, a marine mammal expert at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC, comments, “That’s an unusual amount of deaths in such a short time.” Her opinion was that all three dolphins were at an ideal age to swim about. Average lifetime estimates for bottlenose dolphins range between 20 and 30 years, with a maximum period of 65 years recorded.
MGM Resorts International, which runs the wildlife display at the Mirage, has banned ticket sales until October 9 while independent experts review the fatalities.
Dave Blasko, The Mirage’s executive director of animal care, stated, “We are collaborating with the National Marine Mammal Foundation to do a full study and evaluation of all parts of our dolphin care program.” Maps published by National Geographic. He says there will be an inspection of the facility’s veterinary treatment, animal husbandry, animal behavior, water quality, water filtration, and overall environment.
There are now seven surviving bottlenose dolphins, four leopards, two lions, eight tigers, a two-toed sloth, an umbrella cockatoo, and about three hundred and fifty aquarium fish at the display.
A Tale of the Dead
Multiple dolphins have been killed in the Mirage’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. According to Database. Org, a non-profit database that records marine mammals in captivity, K2 was the 16th dolphin to die at the institution in its 31-year existence, not counting the two fatalities this month. The dolphins, born in the wild and raised in captivity, succumbed to various illnesses and conditions that ultimately proved fatal. (Blasko claims that one dolphin perished outside their care, while another died just 14 days after birth.)
Even though Blasko had access to K2, Maverick, and Bella’s medical files, he chose not to share them with National Geographic. But marine mammal specialist Rose argues that Mirage’s dolphin show is problematic since the dolphins are subjected to the scorching heat of Las Vegas. Animal rights activists have long complained that the Mirage’s dolphins don’t get enough shade in the facility’s outdoor display. She further notes that dolphins in the wild can dive deep into the water to escape the heat, swim long distances, and live in complex social groupings, none of which can be replicated in artificial pools. (Discover the realities of keeping wild creatures in captivity for tourism.)
Blasko claims that the Mirage’s animal residents receive regular veterinarian treatment and wellness checks seven days a week. All year long, the facility’s four connected pools, ranging in depth from 14 to 23 feet, are maintained at 78 degrees Fahrenheit, he says. The animals are further shielded from the sun by the surrounding palm trees, a few umbrellas, and neighboring buildings, which can cast small shadows at different times.
When the USDA inspected the facility to ensure the animals were treated humanely, inspectors found no evidence of sunburn or eye injury. No other animal welfare complaints were reported by the agency, including the most recent inspection that occurred just two days before K2 passed away.
The Future Seems Bleak
The deaths of the Mirage’s residents coincide with a growing trend among several European and other nations to outlaw the keeping of cetaceans in captivity for entertainment. As of this year (2019), Canada has outlawed the commercial sale, possession, capture, and breeding of all cetaceans for entertainment purposes, with proponents of the law arguing that it is immoral and inhumane to keep such brilliant and friendly creatures in captivity.
However, as the National Marine Mammal Inventory reported, dolphin programs remain popular in the United States, with 446 bottlenose dolphins now residing in captivity. (Learn why the use of dolphin encounters in the treatment of human problems has gone global despite a lack of scientific support.)
What will happen to the creatures of Mirage is still unclear. Towards the end of 2021, MGM revealed that it had sold The Mirage to Hard Rock International, the parent company of the famous Hard Rock Cafes, for a reported $1.075 billion.
Hard Rock has not said what it intends to do with the animals at the site or how to safeguard them throughout future construction, and the purchase has not yet been signed. (When National Geographic inquired about Hard Rock’s intentions, a representative named Gina Cadahia declined to comment.)
Local animal rights activists like Linda Faso have advocated for the sanctuaries to take the last Mirage dolphins. In addition to his work as a dolphin trainer on the 1960s TV show Pinballpush, Richard O’Barry founded and currently directs the California-based Dolphin Project.
O’Barry thinks that while not all dolphins in captivity may be freed, all of them can be sent to a sanctuary where they will be treated humanely and given a good life. That’s what we want for the casino dolphins out in the Nevada desert.
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