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Education or exploitation?

April 4, 2011

Smack dab in the middle of the Las Vegas strip lays Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat. Located in the back of the Mirage Hotel & Casino, this is supposedly a place for you to experience an exotic, enchanting and wondrous world and come face to face with white lions, white tigers, panthers, leopards, and a family of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins.  A recent visit to the Secret Garden did provide me an experience, but was this an enchanting and wondrous world?….not by any means.  Seeing these animals left me with a feeling of sadness.  It is certainly a different world, but not one full of enchantment and adventure.

As I walked into the facility, most of the guests were gathered around the first pool as the trainers were conducting a “trainer for the day” session.  I walked up to the pool and immediately made eye contact with Huf-n-Puff, an 11 yr old female born at the Mirage. She was laying her head on the side of the pool as her baby and mother swam around her.  After we stared at each other for a few minutes, I walked away with a sense of emptiness thinking how she didn’t belong there on the side of the freeway in the middle of the desert.

As I looked around, I noticed there was nothing to protect these babies from the elements. There are palm trees around the tanks, yet there are times throughout the day the trees offer no shade from the blazing Las Vegas sun. I lived in Las Vegas for 11 years and if you’ve never spent a summer in Las Vegas, you haven’t experienced HOT.  Being in the sun for even a few minutes when it’s 120+ degrees outside is UNBEARABLE. The summers in Las Vegas are wicked, there is no break from extreme heat…day after day for months and months the sun is baking the Earth.

It was only like 70 degrees out when I was there, but if it was it was mid-summer, these babies would have little to no shade during certain parts of the day. I kept thinking how they would be able to dive up to 150 feet to the ocean’s depths to escape the sun and here they are left with tiny spaces to offer them no protection from the blazing hot summers in Las Vegas. It is a requirement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that marine mammals are provided protection from the elements.

Section 3.104 (3)(b) Shelter. Natural or artificial shelter which is appropriate for the species concerned, when the local climatic conditions are taken into consideration, shall be provided for all marine mammals kept outdoors to afford them protection from the weather or from direct sunlight.

If these dolphins were provided protection from the blazing hot Vegas sun, they wouldn’t have to have sunscreen put on their melons. If they weren’t in captivity, they would be able to dive into the ocean to avoid direct sunlight. They would not surface rest for long periods of time nor would they be limited to one small area to avoid being roasted in the sun.

I just kept thinking how unfair it was to keep such an intelligent, sentient being in these conditions. They could have had the chance to live their lives in the open ocean, foraging, traveling and socializing. Instead these babies are kept in a concrete tank, on the side of the freeway with nothing but some humans to rely on for everything they were born to be able to do on their own. They are left day after day to swim around and around in circles and do some tricks every now and then.   

Las Vegas has been the home of exploiting animals for many decades by use of magic shows and exhibits, most notably Siegfried & Roy’s white tigers. For 18 years, the Mirage hotel displayed the white tigers behind glass in the entrance to the casino.  After much public pressure, the tigers were moved to the back of the hotel where one can pay $15 to see them along with white lions, leopards and bottlenose dolphins.

 The big money-maker of the attraction though is the dolphins. The dolphins don’t perform “shows”, yet the Mirage promotes widely their “Trainer for a Day” program at a whopping cost of $550. As a “trainer for a day”, you can even have the privilege of paying 2 observers for $150 each.  It would cost $850 for you to be a “trainer” for 6 1/4 hours and 2 friends to “observe” and take pictures. Oh but the three of you would receive a fruit & pastry breakfast, a 3 course lunch and a photo opportunity with a dolphin. You as a “trainer” receive the all-inclusive package which includes:

The use of:

  • Lockers
    • Wetsuit
    • Towels
    • Dive mask
    • Sunscreen
  • Shower amenities
  • Souvenir polo shirt
  • Souvenir ball cap
  • Complimentary 8×10 photo
  • Photo CD
  • Certificate of completion
  • Continental breakfast
  • Three course lunch

It is absurd to believe that the Mirage is all about education. Promoting their outrageously priced “trainer for a day” program is nothing more than making a buck.  There wasn’t even a pamphlet given to us to read or any signs with information on dolphins….there was no one to teach you anything about the dolphins except if you were a paid participant.

In 1990, the Mirage acquired 5 wild caught dolphins from different facilities to begin their display to the public. Since then, thirteen dolphins have been born at the Mirage, ten of which are deceased along with four of the five original dolphins acquired in 1990. Their record of captive breeding didn’t start off well, considering two of the first three calves born were a stillborn & a baby that lived only 2 weeks.

With four dolphin deaths in 2004, the Mirage hired a team of outside experts to conduct an audit of the exhibit. The audit results were turned over to the U.S Department of Agriculture, the government entity responsible for ensuring that marine mammals in captivity are properly cared for.  In December 2005, the USDA and The Mirage entered into a settlement agreement in which the hotel agreed to make undisclosed changes as to how it cares for the dolphins at the exhibit.

“The parties recognize that the licensee has voluntarily taken steps to evaluate and to improve its operations,” the agreement states.”

Since 2004, another three dolphins have died in the Mirage’s care, one being a 2 year old male.  Just months prior to 2-year-old Sgt. Pepper’s death, the Mirage applied to the National Marine Fisheries to import two captive Atlantic bottlenose dolphins from Bermuda for breeding purposes.  By this time, the Mirage’s collection of dolphins was dwindling quickly.

In August of 2009, the Mirage was granted their permit application to import those two dolphins from Bermuda.  Immediately, the Mirage became under fire from animal activists concerned of keeping dolphins in the middle of the desert given the track record of deaths at the Mirage.  Instead of importing the dolphins from Bermuda, the Mirage  acquired three dolphins from SeaWorld. Applying for a federal permit to import the dolphins left the Mirage open for public scrutiny. But when a facility transports animals between facilities within the U.S., there is no requirement to apply for a federal permit. This allowed the Mirage to acquire the dolphins they wanted at the time under a hidden veil of secrecy.

As I was sitting at the edge of one of the pools, I looked down as I felt one of the dolphins, Maverick, staring at me. He kept swimming around in a small circle, then would place his head on the ledge in front of me and then swim away staring at me. He kept doing this over and over for about 20 minutes.  Again, I felt the same sense of emptiness as I had earlier while looking at Huff-n-Puf.

Every time Maverick would come back around to the ledge, he would stop and stare at me for a few minutes. I sat there looking around at the other guests wondering if they had any thoughts as to how it must feel for the dolphins to live here or were they just thinking of how it made themselves feel to see a dolphin so close up & “personal”. Was there any thoughts or concerns about the noise & pollution from the freeway or what it must be like to be so limited?

Las Vegas is the home to gambling, not dolphins. If the Mirage was all about education and conservation, they would not be exploiting these dolphins for tourists to be a “trainer” for a day. Forcing these dolphins to live in barren, concrete tanks that are unnatural environments is not education,  conservation or humane.

With the amount of pre-mature dolphin deaths at the Mirage, it’s no wonder the nickname “Dolphin Death Pool” exists.


TELL THE UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA TO STOP SENDING STUDENTS TO THE DOLPHIN EXHIBIT and provide the tools necessary for students to pursue internships focused on wild dolphins in their natural environment.



Write, email or call the USDA/APHIS and ask them to enforce the Mirage abide by Section 3.104(3)(b) of the AWA and provide a shade structure for the dolphins.

2150 Centre Ave.
Building B, Mailstop 3W11
Fort Collins, CO 80526-8117

Phone: (970) 494-7478
Fax: (970) 494-7461


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Delfina permalink
    April 4, 2011 4:14 am

    This is a great article! These poor dolphins don’t belong in the desert! Nothing about their home is ‘natural’… The death rate should be enough to cause concerns but no… They hide behind the ‘we’re accredited by the AMMPA so everything is legit’ .. And association created by the parks and for the parks. Not to mention their ‘all living things die..’ philosophy.

  2. Lorrie permalink
    April 4, 2011 4:19 am

    I too lived in the desert for many years. It’s hard to imagine, but they must somehow try to keep the water cool, as the high temperatures would surely heat their pool up quickly.
    Dolphins do not belong in the desert to live as long as possible only to be replaced when they die. Breeding them is an atrocity that must end. This whole thing just sickens me!
    I will sign the petition, and I keep praying that I will live long enough to see humankind come to their senses and no longer keep wild animals prisoners for their own profit.
    This is a barbaric practice whose time has come to end. Thanks to blogs such as this (love you ladies), we’ll keep working until all wild animals are free once again.

  3. Jen permalink
    April 7, 2011 1:59 am

    A few months ago I signed a petition agaisnt keeping dolphins at the Mirage Hotel and this is the reply I got –

    ‘ “Thank you for asking about our dolphins. The Dolphin Habitat upholds the highest professional values for the care of our animals. The Habitat is a member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA), a well-respected international association dedicated to the conservation and protection of marine mammals and the members of our Habitat staff are each specially trained animal care experts.
    Millions of children and adults visit the Habitat each year to enjoy an up-close and educational experience that creates an emotional bond between the guests and the dolphins – a connection that inspires our guests to care about the conservation of these animals in the wild, and the protection of the oceans in which they live.
    It is important to note that none of the dolphins living at the Habitat came from Japan or any drive fishery. Additionally 70 percent of the dolphins in the US have been born at marine parks in the US .
    Our facility undergoes comprehensive annual on-site inspections by the US Department of Agriculture and is in full compliance with all regulations.
    Thank you again for writing.
    Yvette Monet
    The Mirage Public Affairs ” ‘

  4. January 11, 2013 6:16 am

    Unfortunately, I visited the dolphin habitat in 2007, when Sgt. Pepper was still a baby. Have since become an advocate against cetaceans in captivity, and have my own blog to educate and bring awareness. Really wish I had had your blog piece available to me back then, as I never in good conscience would have visited the habitat that day. That’s why I made it available to my readers. I can only educate and bring awareness with facts and what not, but hopefully, it is successful in changing some people’s way of thinking, about this issue.

    Recently found out that Sgt. Pepper passed away at age two, from a lung infection. Broke my heart! She should have lived beyond that, and I truly believe it was the artificial environment that killed her. Huge example that captivity doesn’t work.

  5. Helen Meehan permalink
    January 12, 2013 7:53 pm

    When I visited mirage the big cats were in too small enclosures & the dolphins another story. Your making money out of an mammal that should be FREE hideous tactics you have going on too gain profit absolutley won’t be visiting your hotel & I’ll tell everyone who will listen not to visit you & your captive animals ever again.hope you have trouble sleeping at night & if you don’t there’s still time

  6. Lisa permalink
    July 30, 2013 1:14 pm

    In my opinion they saved the Animals from seaworld


  1. Speak For The Dolphins

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