Animal lovers and conservationists were up in arms yesterday morning when photos of a pink dolphin with its head covered in bumps and sores surfaced on social media.
The mammal is said to be housed at the Dolphin Lagoon, which belongs to Sentosa's Underwater World Singapore (UWS).
The photos were part of a 30-page investigative report by local conservation group Wildlife Watcher Singapore, which was working with global environmental conservation group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
The report alleged that pink dolphins, a highly endangered species, fur seals and otters, were housed in "degrading conditions".
Dolphins were also "put on display and were made to perform despite having serious injuries".
Responding to queries from the media, a spokesman for Haw Par Corporation, which owns UWS, confirmed that the female dolphin in question, Han, is one of theirs, and that the bruises are the result of skin cancer.
The condition is non-contagious and it is under the care of UWS marine mammal vets, the spokesman added.
It does not participate in any performances or programmes and besides the cancer, the dolphin is in "generally good health" and has regular health checks.
Despite its condition, Han is very active and enjoys playing with other dolphins in the main pool.
The Har Par spokesman added: "Given that the sight of the dolphin's skin condition may cause discomfort to some of our guests, our trainers have minimised its appearance to the public at the main pool while still allowing it the chance to interact with other dolphins at times and without restraining its fun-loving nature.
"We share its condition with the public whenever asked about its appearance, and thus far, our guests have responded with empathy and acceptance."
This is the first dolphin to be diagnosed with skin cancer since the Dolphin Lagoon started, the spokesman said. There are six dolphins at the lagoon.
Early yesterday morning, a link to the report, along with several pictures of the diseased dolphin, were posted on the Facebook pages of Wildlife Watcher Singapore and Sea Shepherd Singapore.
Hosted on online file-sharing service Dropbox, the link had been accessed so many times that the Dropbox account was temporarily suspended.
The report also detailed how Wildlife Watcher started its investigations after being alerted to the dolphin's conditions by a member of the public.
Along with a representative of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Wildlife Watcher attended two programmes at UWS on July 23: The pink dolphins' behind-the-scene enrichment play session and the meet-the-dolphins-and-fur seals session.
That was where they took the pictures showing Han in poor health.
They made another visit on Aug 17, attending both programmes. This time, the head and mouth wounds on Han seemed to have worsened, the report noted.
Furthermore, it said the other dolphins and fur seals were made to perform with music that was up to 101 decibels, which was highly stressful for the animals.
LACK OF WELFARE
The report also said that Asian small-clawed otters were housed in "sub-standard conditions, indicating an obvious lack of welfare".
Responding to these allegations, the Haw Par Corporation spokesman said the health and welfare of the otters are of top priority to their trainers.
"Whenever possible, we offer our otters the opportunity to explore different stimuli in different enclosures at both the front and the back of the house," she said.
The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said in a statement that it has inspected UWS after feedback from Wildlife Watcher and found the dolphins to be in "satisfactory condition".
"As a zoological facility, UWS is allowed to import and display both wild and captive-bred specimens of endangered species," it said.
This includes the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, commonly known as the pink dolphin, despite its listing in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international conservation agreement limiting the trade of endangered species.
When presented with the report, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society Singapore (Acres), which has been campaigning against dolphin captivity, said that it was "appalled" by the conditions of the dolphins in the Dolphin Lagoon.
Acres chief executive Louis Ng said: "Acres hopes that companies in Singapore will make a moral and ethical decision to end the confinement of dolphins in captivity."
Controversy over dolphins
Beginning in July 2003, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) had been appealing to Underwater World Singapore (UWS), which is owned by the Haw Par Corporation, to free six pink dolphins.
On Oct 22, 2003, Acres parked a black car, with a pink dolphin soft toy chained to its top, outside the Haw Par Glass Tower building in Clemenceau Avenue.
Three Acres members later handed a petition with 8,400 signatures to Haw Par.
Haw Par denied Acres' claims that the animals were stressed from being in captivity, citing the birth of a male dolphin in 2002 as evidence.
Acres uncovered evidence that the six pink dolphins at UWS's Dolphin Lagoon were caught in the wild and not bred in captivity as initially claimed.
This meant that UWS had breached the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international conservation agreement which disallows the export of animals if this will affect their survival in the wild.
However, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority put this down to an administrative error and said it was still legal for UWS to keep the highly endangered creatures.
The debate was re-ignited when the newly-built Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) announced that the first batch of bottlenose dolphins were on their way from their native Solomon Islands habitat to the Philippines, where they would be trained before they would move on to Singapore.
Although the importation of bottlenose dolphins is legal with a permit, animal activists were upset, saying that the animals were not collected in a sustainable manner and will not thrive in captivity.
It was revealed that the dolphins were kept in pens in Langkawi, Malaysia, for about a year before being moved to the Philippines.
But when Acres visited the pens, it said the dolphins were housed in rusty enclosures measuring 10m by 10m and these were in an area off the coast frequented by boats.
The noise would have made it stressful for dolphins, Acres said.
Two dolphins died there.
In response, an RWS spokesman said the allegations were inaccurate in parts, pointing out that Acres visited the Langkawi facility more than a month after it had closed, and that the enclosures were bigger than what was alleged.
This article was first published on Oct 28, 2014.
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