A group of Armenian non-governmental organizations is planning to file a lawsuit against a recently opened Yerevan dolphinarium, asserting that the center’s seven marine mammals are subject to abuse. The dolphinarium’s management, which promotes the facility as a “world of water miracles,” denies abuse accusations.
“This is a prison for animals, an exploitative circus, and we will not give up our fight,” asserted Silva Adamian, the chairperson of the Ecological Alliance, a group comprising 50 environmental, human rights non-governmental organizations, and the opposition Heritage Party. The alliance opposes the Nemo dolphinarium’s operations. Efforts to review the Ukrainian-built center’s license to import dolphins into Armenia, or the license to construct the building, have so far been unsuccessful, she said. “We are going to bring a lawsuit soon and we will go to international courts,” she said.
The dolphinarium has become a star attraction in Yerevan since it opened in late December, drawing thousands of Armenians daily to see marine mammals for the first time. The visitor response has been so heavy that the facility, able to accommodate 900 visitors, stages at least three daily performances by its two fur seals (“Dotty” and “Ruby”), four dolphins (“Datik,” “Masha,” “Vachik” and “Dasha”) and one sea lion. Sometimes the number of visitors is so high that the mammals also perform a fourth time, late at night
By local standards, tickets are expensive – 2,000 drams ($5.50) on weekdays and 3,000 drams ($8.30) on weekends and holidays. A swim with a dolphin costs 20,000 drams ($55.50).
But the cost shows no sign of deterring visitors, many from the regions, who wait in long lines outside the Nemo ticket office. “The interest is just enormous,” said one Nemo cashier. “People are ready to wait for hours for the next performance, if tickets for the earlier one are already sold out.”
Environmentalists and human rights activists believe the interest is not worth what they charge is exploitation of sea mammals. “We wouldn’t like to see Armenia among the countries that treat dolphins in such a way,” said Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets Director Ruben Khachatrian.
The Nemo dolphins, Pacific Ocean natives brought to Armenia from Japan, are kept in heavily chlorinated water in a confined space, Khachatrian charged. The tank, five meters deep and 36 meters wide, is small by comparison with such dolphinariums as the 8,400-square-meter lagoons at Florida’s Dolphin Research Center, the original home of 1960s dolphin screen star Flipper, and similar such facilities.
“Chlorinated water might lead to blindness in several months, let alone the noise of whistles, extremely limited space and constant stress,” Khachatrian continued. “They won’t live long in these circumstances, and we will never know whether the animals have been replaced, or taken somewhere else because they are not registered anywhere.”
The Ministry of Environmental Protection told EurasiaNet.org in November 2010 that it had not issued an import license to the dolphinarium for the dolphins.
Environmentalists also claim that the dolphinarium itself was constructed without input from experts about the mammals’ ability to survive in Armenia’s climate, or the dolphinarium’s plans for feeding and care. In an October 19, 2010 letter to the Ecological Alliance, the environmental protection ministry stated that the Nemo dolphinarium had not requested an “expert opinion on [the dolphinarium’s] environmental impact” nor had “submitted construction documents.”
Nemo Director Lilit Sahakian, though, asserts that all of the dolphinarium’s documents are “in order.”
“We have permission to import animals, and, generally, all our documents are in order,” Sahakian said. “As to the influence of chlorinated water, I cannot say anything in this regard.”
Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Pepanian commented that if the dolphinarium’s documents are incomplete, the ministry “can demand that the documents be filled out and submitted, or that their activities be suspended.”
Most spectators for the dolphin show appear to be more engrossed by the performance than by animal-abuse concerns. As a Ukrainian presenter describes the performance in Russian, a standing-room-only crowd appears mesmerized by the sight of the four dolphins jumping from one side of the tank to the other.
“I’ve never seen such а wonder; this is a real gift for my children,” gushed one female visitor with two young children.
Yerevan’s city government shares that enthusiasm. “Dolphinariums are wonderful recreation sites in many developed cities of the world,” said a September 30 statement issued by the Yerevan mayor’s office. “Yerevan should also have such a nice place of leisure.”
Ecological Alliance chief Adamian, who also runs the Bird Center, a biodiversity watchdog that promotes ornithological development, charges that the city is double-dealing. “The city administration has backed the construction of the dolphinarium and given every support to the Ukrainian company Nerum [which built the facility],” she alleged. “Meanwhile, we have no documents about the reasons for [the dolphinarium’s] activity.”
The Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets's Ruben Khachatrian agrees that the dolphinarium does not flatter Armenia’s image. To raise public awareness, the Ecological Alliance is considering an education campaign, he said. “We [would] inform children through films about how these animals suffer, so that the children themselves refuse to visit the dolphinarium,” Khachatrian said.
Public skepticism, however, appears to run strong that such a campaign would yield results. “Do you see the excitement at the ticket office even when all the tickets are sold out?” one dolphinarium visitor commented. “People are ready to watch the performance even standing in the hall, and I’m sure the dolphinarium’s management will capitalize on the situation and make use of the animals to the fullest extent.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.