Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Dolphins and the law

Marine Animal Productions, the company that owns the Marine Life Oceanarium dolphins, is working with U.S. and Bahamian agencies to move them to an exclusive island resort.

Meanwhile, a Harrison County Chancery Court order prohibits MAP from selling its assets, including the dolphins. MAP has asked the court to lift the temporary order. No hearing date has been scheduled. The case has been assigned to Judge James H.C. Thomas Jr. of Hattiesburg; the four Harrison County chancellors recused themselves.

Some Gulf Coast residents and former Marine Life employees are concerned that MAP is trying to circumvent the system ahead of the court's ruling.

Workers for Marine Animal Productions and its new president, David Lion, have been stationed at the three locations temporarily housing Gulfport's dolphins in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with all the equipment necessary to move them, according to a trainer for Marine Life and to Rusty Walker, founder of Save Our Dolphins, a group trying to keep the dolphins in Gulfport.

Lion said Wednesday people from Atlantis resort are on the Coast "to familiarize themselves with the animals." The holding locations for the dolphins are the Naval Construction Battalion Center and sites in Florida and New Jersey.

The dolphins' fate is at the center of a lawsuit between the two owners of MAP, Donald P. Jacobs and Dr. Moby Solangi, former president of Marine Life. The suit involves a dispute over the percentage of Solangi's stock ownership and the animals' future.

Walker said Lion is trying to move the dolphins soon on a "temporary permit" from federal agencies to an environment with specialized marine care because some are sick with Morbillivirus, even though the virus, according to Walker, has never appeared in the Atlantic Ocean and the arrival of Gulfport's dolphins could introduce the disease.

"Once they are taken out of the country we're not sure the courts would have any jurisdiction," Walker said, adding he believes the move is about money and not the animals' welfare. "The current management at MAP has no apparent experience in marine mammal care and yet they seem to be making animal-care decisions."

Thirteen of the 18 dolphins were originally supposed to go to the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys until the Gulfport oceanarium was rebuilt, said Kimberly Perron, spokeswoman for the DRC.

"We opened our home as we always do," Perron said. "We were ready and willing but MAP has made a more permanent home in Atlantis. That would be wonderful for the dolphins."

Perron said keeping the pod together - which would happen if they went to Atlantis - would be ideal and was something the DRC is incapable of doing.

Lion said MAP has looked at several options for housing the dolphins.

"We found the very best option for all the dolphins was, hands down, Atlantis, Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas," he said.

Like Walker and other concerned citizens, Solangi's lawyer in the civil action questions whether MAP's agreement with Kerzner International, the owner of Atlantis, is legal.

"We contend that it's not legal because MAP appointed David Lion as president," said Beau Stewart on Wednesday. "That action is not legal, as we see it. The people who are running MAP and Marine Life right now aren't really the president so this agreement, we contend, the agreement (between MAP and the owner of Atlantis) isn't valid."

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"