The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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Animal Welfare Commissioner says deaths of three dolphins were not a ‘pure accident’

Semira Abbas Shalan Monday, 12 September 2022, 12:28 Last update: about 13 days ago

The Office of the Commissioner for Animal Welfare disagrees with the assessment that the deaths of three Mediterraneo Marine Park dolphins were a 'pure accident', adding that while there was no blatant neglect, a degree of negligence was involved on more than one occasion.

Times of Malta had recently reported that lead poisoning was the cause of death of three dolphins at the park in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq. One source from within the park had said that this may have occurred when a weight bag stuffed with lead pellets split in the pool and escaped employees' notice. Following an investigation opened by the Commission into the functions and workings of the Veterinary Regulations Directorate (VRD) with regards to the death of three bottlenose dolphins named Onda, Mar and Melita, the Commissioner said that the three dolphin deaths merited, "far more scrutiny, attention and certainly a more immediate response by the VRD."

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

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

Upon learning through third party sources that the cause of death was lead poisoning, the Office of the Commissioner launched an official investigation on 9 July 2022 to investigate the functions and workings of Veterinary Services.

The VRD had concluded that the deaths were a pure accident. The Office of the Commissioner's investigation concluded that the VRD's investigation was only pushed after the Commissioner's inquiries, and before February 2022 "no event-specific measures were taken by the VRD, and the Mediterraneo Marine Park was allowed to go about its business as usual."

The Office of the Commissioner said that, "whilst it appreciates that this was not a case of Mediterraneo Marine Park causing voluntary harm to animals or even one of blatant neglect, a degree of negligence was involved on more than one occasion and therefore disagrees with the VRD's assessment of it being a 'pure accident.'"

The report of the investigation concluded that lead pellets of 2-3mm diameter were stuck in the dolphins' teeth, which led to the diagnosis of lead toxicosis. The lead pellets are used by some scuba divers as weights. Mediterraneo Marine Park then started treating the dolphins for this condition, the Office of the Commissioner said.

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

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

"Mediterraneo Marine Park concluded that the sub-contracted diver's lead pellets pouch must have been misplaced, eventually releasing a large number of lead pellets into the tank. The majority of the pellets got stuck in the filtration system but were inadvertently released back into the tank when a strictly prohibited back-wash procedure was performed by an Mediterraneo Marine Park employee, on 27 July, 2022," it said.

The Mediterraneo Marine Park believes that a diver who was engaged before July 2021 must have used a standard 2kg bag of lead pellets and then misplaced it. All employed divers must strictly only use solid weights in the dolphin tanks.

Ulisse, a young male dolphin, is to date still in recovery, as he has now developed chronic lead poisoning. There are now remain a total of five male dolphins at Mediterraneo Marine Park.

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