Animal welfare

Animal Welfare Commissioner says death of three dolphins was not ‘pure accident’

Semira Abbas Shalan

Monday, September 12, 2022, 12:28 PM
Last Updated: about 1 day ago

The Office of the Animal Welfare Commissioner disagrees with the assessment that the deaths of three dolphins from the Mediterraneo Marine Park were a ‘pure accident’, adding that although there is no had gross negligence, some degree of negligence was involved on more than one occasion.

Times of Malta recently reported that lead poisoning was the cause of the death of three dolphins in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq Park. A source within the park said it may have happened when a weight bag full of sinkers split open in the pool and escaped the notice of staff. Following an investigation by the Commission into the Functions and Operation of the Veterinary Regulatory Directorate (VRD) into the deaths of three bottlenose dolphins named Onda, Mar and Melita, the Commissioner said that the three deaths of dolphins deserved “far greater scrutiny, attention, and certainly a more immediate response from the VRD.”

The Commissariat had requested clarifications and information regarding the disappearance of the dolphins, of which the Commission had been alerted in February 2022.

After two months of lethargic responses from the VRD, the Commissioner’s Office was informed that the dolphins had died in August and September 2021, all three within 20 days, he said.

After learning from third-party sources that the cause of death was lead poisoning, the Commissioner’s Office launched a formal inquiry on July 9, 2022 to investigate the functions and functioning of the Veterinary Services.

The VRD had concluded that the deaths were a pure accident. The Commissariat’s investigation concluded that the VRD’s investigation was only pursued further after the Commissioner’s enquiries, and prior to February 2022 “no event-specific action was taken by the VRD, and the park Marin Mediterraneo has been cleared to continue operations as usual.”

The Commissioner’s Office stated that, “while recognizing that this was not a case of the Mediterraneo Marine Park causing willful harm to animals or even gross negligence, some degree of negligence has been involved on more than one occasion and therefore disagrees with the VRD claim that this is a “pure accident”.

The investigation report concluded that lead balls 2–3 mm in diameter were stuck in the dolphins’ teeth, leading to the diagnosis of lead toxicosis. Weights are used by some divers as weights. The Mediterraneo Marine Park then began treating dolphins for the condition, the commissioner’s office said.

Despite several attempts to care for and save the dolphins, including involving European colleagues to collaborate in the treatment, the three female dolphins died within days of each other.

“Mediterraneo Marine Park claims to have never allowed its employee divers to use these types of weights and only solid weights are permitted. Mediterraneo Marine Park therefore assumed that an “external” diver (not a park employee) must have introduced pellets in the tanks,” the report said.

“Mediterraneo Marine Park concluded that the contracted diver’s weight bag must have been misplaced, eventually releasing a large number of weights into the tank. The majority of the weights got stuck in the filtration system but were inadvertently released in the tank when a strictly prohibited backwashing procedure was performed by an employee of the Mediterraneo Marine Park, on July 27, 2022,” he said.

The Mediterraneo Marine Park estimates that a diver who was hired before July 2021 had to use a standard bag of 2 kg of weights and then misplaced it. All employed divers must strictly use only solid weights in dolphin tanks.

Ulisse, a young male dolphin, is to this day still recovering, as he has now developed chronic lead poisoning. There are now a total of five male dolphins left at the Mediterraneo Marine Park.