International Marine Mammal Project

To Free a Dolphin

Earth Island News

International Marine Mammal Project

Guatemala – It was bizarre, trying to convince people of the importance of freeing dolphins when, at the same time, 78 of the country’s most dangerous prisoners had just fled the state’s highest security prison. But that’s what our group MadreSelva (Mother Forest) was up to, after discovering a group of dolphins living in a filthy pool in Santa Lucia Milpas Altas, in the shadow of the majestic Agua Volcano, nearly 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level – a beautiful location, but not for cetaceans!

This story began when Ruben and Ricardo Roca started Water Land, a travelling animal show that hauled dolphins, sea lions and other marine animals across Mexico, through Central America and all the way to Venezuela and Colombia. Many of the animals reportedly died along the way.

Alerted by a phone call, we drove to Santa Lucia and found four dolphins in a foul–smelling pool. We immediately contacted CONAP, the federal agency that handles wildlife permits. CONAP officials told us that they knew the Rocas, since the brothers had imported and exported dolphins. But when we asked to see the required certificates, CONAP told us that there was a slight problem – two of the dolphins had no papers.

The Rocas spirited two of the dolphins out of the country. When CONAP issued an arrest warrant for the Rocas, charging them with illegal wildlife trafficking, they fled the country as well. That left CONAP with two remaining dolphins and a big problem.

Since there are no dolphin experts in Guatemala, our wildlife authorities decided to donate the animals to a local zoo. At this point, MadreSelva contacted the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), which called in Rick O’Barry (the original trainer of TV’s “Flipper,” who has since become one of the world’s most militant campaigners in the fight to free captive dolphins).

O’Barry and WSPA veterinarian Juan Carlos Murillo flew to Santa Lucia Milpas Altas and found the two remaining dolphins in critical condition, suffering from dehydration and hunger. Fortunately, O’Barry noted, the dolphins were only about nine years old and not completely trained, so they were “perfect candidates to be released again in the wild.”

CONAP agreed to hand the responsibility of the dolphins over to WSPA, and a dolphin–rescue team went to work cleaning the water and feeding the dolphins. We had to find helicopters, planes and some strong backs to transport the dolphins – nicknamed Ariel and Turbo – to an Atlantic Ocean sea pen built by the WSPA. After weeks of public pressure (including media coverage and thousands of emails from around the world), the Guatemalan Army finally agreed to collaborate.

It was painful to see these large, yet delicate, creatures being pulled from the water, carried in stretchers and placed in wooden boxes. It probably would have lessened their anxiety to know that this was to be their last man–handled trip – 40 minutes by road, 60 minutes by plane and 20 minutes by helicopter.

Now, under the watchful eye of O’Barry and his wife Helene, Turbo and Ariel swim peacefully in their sea enclosure, healing their wounds to the rhythms of tides and waves. They already have begun communicating with groups of wild dolphins that are coming to visit their private little bay.

In our troubled but very beautiful country, it was possible to free two dolphins. All our effort shall now be directed to making Guatemala a country where dolphins swim free!

Magali Rey Rosa is a member of Colectivo MadreSelva, a Guatemalan ecological group [7 Avenida, 13–01, Zone 9, La Cupula, Ciudad Guatemala, Guatemala].

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