Three abandoned dolphins arouse concern in Israel


March 17, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

TEL AVIV -- Three dolphins stranded by a bankruptcy are the central figures in the great Flipper Flap.

From limbo in an abandoned pool, they have been saved -- or condemned, depending on who's doing the telling -- to perform in an amusement park. It is yet another controversy from Israel taking on international dimensions.

The dolphins were part of a contingent obtained from Russia to put on entertainment shows at Dolphinarium, a shabby 13-year-old beachfront building on Tel Aviv's Mediterranean coast.

Some months ago, the business went under, so to speak. The managers left town, leaving behind a stack of unpaid bills, including one to the power company, which moved to shut off the electricity.

Trouble was, six dolphins and three sea lions were still in the place. Shutting off the power meant shutting down the engines that circulate and filter the water in the pools. The animals would die.

Animal rights groups had never been happy with the Dolphinarium. There had been a dark record of fatalities there: Tanya, Israel's first imported Beluga whale, turned belly up within two weeks of arrival; a big sea lion broke her neck when somebody moved the sliding board from its usual spot in her act; at least one other dolphin succumbed to mysterious ailments and died.

Enter Haim Slutzky, an entertainment promoter (Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, the Bolshoi Ballet) and owner of two amusement parks in Tel Aviv. He brought in a generator to keep the pool engines going and dug into his pocket to buy food for the mammals.

"I saved the dolphins. I gave them food. I gave them a generator. I gave them a place to survive," he said.

The place turns out to be a large metal pool at Luna Park, one of his amusement centers. He proposed bringing three of the dolphins there to perform for a year.

The animal rights groups that had lauded Mr. Slutzky for his quick action now were appalled. Their federation, Noah -- after Noah's Ark -- contended that the dolphins, which use sonar for direction, will be worse off in a metal pool. In addition, the pool will be under the roller coaster in the park, which is near a busy highway and a rail line.

"It's really the noisiest place in Tel Aviv," complained Dan Almagor, chairman of Noah. "Dolphins are really sensitive. To put them in a metal tank would be like putting headphones on a person, hooking them to a ghetto blaster and turning the volume all the way up."

The groups began raising a fuss. They staged demonstrations. They made appeals that brought an avalanche of support from international save-the-dolphins groups. Rick O'Barry, a Floridian who had helped train the original TV Flippers (there were seven of them) jetted here to start a hunger strike.

During the debate, two of the six dolphins and two sea lions were sent back to Russia. Another dolphin died while awaiting his fate.

The feud soon engulfed public officials. Environment Minister Yossi Sarid proclaimed that no more dolphins will be imported to Israel for commercial purposes. But officials balked at deporting the ones here now.

"They were brought in according to the law," said Dr. Zvi Galin, nTC chief veterinarian of Tel Aviv. Dr. Galin ordered Mr. Slutzky to abide by all of the regulations used in the United States for keeping dolphins.

Those regulations do not ban using metal pools, Dr. Galin said. He said he sought expert testimony from all over the world, and "no scientist has sent any proof the dolphins will be harmed." He ordered Mr. Slutzky to bury the tank in the ground to reduce vibrations, build an adjoining quarantine tank and erect acoustic walls.

While the officials showered his plan with red tape, Mr. Slutzky abruptly moved the three dolphins and the remaining sea lion to Luna Park on Friday without the government permits.

"I finished everything they demanded," he said yesterday. Besides, he had advertised the dolphins for the season opening of the amusement park next week, and already sold 100,000 tickets at 30 shekels ($10) each, he said.

Robi Damelin said he and his fellow Noah members are trying to speak up for the dolphins, who cannot complain for themselves.

"The dolphins have this smile that gets them into trouble," he said. "They always look so cheerful. It's an illusion."

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