BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
YEREVAN (Armenian Weekly)—A dolphinarium (dolphin-aquarium) recently built in Yerevan’s Komitas Park is part of the city’s effort to revive the park. The project, however, has faced much resistance from environmental and animal rights groups who say dolphins and Armenia can’t mix for a variety of reasons— from an unsuitable climate, to exploitation for profit, to the desecration of the nearby Pantheon.
Four dolphins, two sea lions, and a seal are housed in the metal construction, which also includes a stage, pool, and tricolor—red, blue, and orange—seats that accommodate 900 audience members. The dolphinarium is slated to operate year-round, as an open-air structure in the summer and with a glass dome to shield visitors and animals during cooler months.
The project is spearheaded by the Ukrainian company Nerum, which has built four dolphinariums in Ukraine (in Kiev, Odessa, Donetsk, and Kharkov). And like its sister project in Odessa, Yerevan’s dolphinarium is also called “Nemo.”
Just a couple of months ago, when news of Armenia’s first dolphinarium began to circulate, concerns were raised: How will the planners provide fresh seawater to these saltwater inhabitants? Will the animals adapt to Armenia’s climate? Why should they be confined to a small space for a few laughs and applause? And is the plot of land at the park an appropriate location?
On Dec. 24, opening day, environmental and animal rights groups protested in front of the dolphinarium, chanting slogans (“Freedom for the dolphins!” and “Shame! Shame! Shame!”) and holding posters condemning the project (“Stop profiting from dolphins,” “Don’t imprison the dolphins,” “Dolphins should live in their natural environment,” and “Let’s boycott the dolphin torture room!”).
An activist explains
Maria Aghajanyan, a 28 year-old environmental activist in Yerevan, shared her concerns with the Armenian Weekly. She noted “how the dolphinarium was built without any consultation with relevant environmental experts and despite their raised concerns.”
“As far as I know, there has been no proper assessment conducted by the Nature Protection Ministry prior to the opening of the dolphinarium, and all our efforts to receive documentation with regard to the construction of the dolphinarium were in vain since none of the relevant authorities (ministry and municipality) sent any information to us,” said Aghajanyan.
“Such secrecy is even more alarming in light of the fact that the company that brought the dolphins to Armenia is pending a legal suit in Ukraine. If you have seen the dolphinarium you probably have noticed how small it is, and we are concerned that this space will not be enough to ensure dolphins’ wellbeing. There are also concerns regarding the dolphinarium’s guarantees for food and seawater for the animals as well as whether they can live in such a high altitude.”
“The most important point in all of this is that we, as environmental activists, are against holding wild animals in captivity and we believe that the dolphins and other sea animals that were brought to Armenia should live in the sea. They should not be kept in these cages, however large or small, for our entertainment,” she added.
According to Aghajanyan, so far, there has been no response from authorities. “We’ll see how long they will keep this silence.”
Demanding answers, raising awareness
Fifty environmental and animal rights organizations (including the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets, Pro Paws, Eko Dashink, and Eko Dar) sent a joint letter to President Serge Sarkisian, Prime Minister Dikran Sarkisian, Nature Protection Minister Aram Harutyunyan, and Yerevan Mayor Gagik Beglaryan, demanding they stop the project.
The city has claimed that profits from the project will fund efforts to revive the park, but activists insist it is merely a means to personal profit.
Some have raised concerns over the source of the water needed to sustain this project, arguing that it will take away from the public water supply. The dolphinarium will have to turn freshwater to saltwater by adding salt to tap water, provided by the city’s water supplier, Yerevan Djur. The company has said that the dolphinarium will be treated just like any other client, and that there is no reason to fret.
During the press conference held on opening day, representatives from environmental and animal rights groups criticized the size of the tank, which is 5 meters deep and has an 18-meter radius. Dolphins, they said, swim an average of 100 meters a day and need to be in waters at least 20 meters deep. They worry that when these dolphins attempt to dive, they will inadvertently scrape their beaks on the floor of the tank.
Activists fear that Armenia’s climate—with hot and dry summers, and brutal winters—is not suitable for dolphins. They also say the animals will not be supplied with proper nutrition. “We don’t have access to a sea, and we’ll be feeding them frozen fish, and every time they train those animals—just picture your children, those younger than you, picture saying to them, ‘I will not give you food until you jump up high,’” said the president of Pro Paws, Elsik Azizyan, during the press conference.
“Alexander Merlian, the director of Nerum, said, ‘I know it is possible to build a dolphinarium in Armenia because the climate or the atmosphere is convenient, and whoever disagrees with me—if environmentalists disagree with me—that’s their problem and not mine.’ That means what Armenian environmental experts have to say is not important…because what’s important is profit,” explained Elsik. “In 2005 this same company tried to do work in Ukraine, and they tried various venues…but in the end they were not given permission to continue their work.”
Environmentalists say they notified authorities about lawsuits against Nerum for alleged illegal activities in Ukraine, but are still waiting for a response. In addition, the identity of the dolphinarium owners, and how the animals arrived in Armenia, remain a mystery.
Proponents of the project have argued that interaction with dolphins has a therapeutic effect, especially for children with special needs and those suffering from depression. Opponents say the claim is unfounded.
“If there is any success, I’d be more likely inclined to attribute it to the general effects of…the opportunity to interact with animals. You could buy them a puppy and see the same results,” says Michael Westerveld, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Yale University’s School of Medicine.
If therapy through animal interaction is the objective, some say, there are plenty of stray dogs in Armenia. Building a no-kill dog shelter may be better received.
Desecrating the land?
Still others see the inclusion of the dolphinarium in Komitas Park—which houses the tombs of Komitas, Aram Khachaturian, Avetik Isahakyan, William Saroyan, Sergei Parajanov, and Alexander Shirvanzade—as the desecration of a sacred space.
Vahram Tatikyan, a well-known writer, musician, and environmental activist, was so outraged that he went on a hunger strike in October. He demanded that the pantheon be classified as a historical monument, and vowed to stay on the hunger strike—staged at the construction site—until it was dismantled. However, he soon gave a press conference announcing that he had ended the strike after the first and “very symbolic” 37 hours, due to some problems—including police failure to provide adequate protection (and even an encounter with an inebriated head of the police unit who was sent to ensure his safety); being duped into believing that he had reached a compromise with the authorities; and reports in the media claiming that Minister of Culture Hasmik Poghosyan had mocked his words.
Dolphins and dolphinariums
Although dolphins can live up to 50 years in the wild, more than half die within the first two years in captivity—from stress, pollution, and disease, say experts.
Richard O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer-turned-animal rights activist, has spoken out against dolphinariums, arguing that these highly intelligent creatures will commit suicide by refusing to take their next breath of air. O’Barry helped capture and train dolphins on the popular television show “Flipper,” which contributed to the popularity and development of dolphinariums. However, soon after one of the dolphins, Kathy, died in his arms, in what he believed to have been suicide, he turned against the industry. O’Barry was featured in “The Cove,” an Academy Award-winning documentary film that exposes the yearly dolphin drive hunting that takes place in Taiji, Japan—where a handful of dolphins are captured to be shipped off to various parks and aquariums, and the rest are killed in mass.
Rules and regulations
Some governments have taken a firm stance against the import, export, or display of dolphins. A number of countries did so only after the deaths of dolphins in their dolphinariums. For instance, in 1992, Hungary closed down its dolphinarium and placed a ban on dolphin imports after one of the five illegally imported dolphins from Ukraine died during the transfer, and another within a week of its arrival. In 1998, India closed its sole dolphinarium and banned imports of dolphins, after three bottlenose dolphins died within three months of their arrival to the country. Similarly, Argentina banned dolphin imports after 12 dolphins met their untimely deaths in captivity.
Some countries, like Chile, Costa Rica, and Croatia, have banned the confinement of dolphins. Others, like Italy and Brazil, prohibit interactive programs. A number of countries, like Cyprus, India, and Hungary, have banned the imports of cetaceans (dolphins, orcas), while others have banned exports.
Activists in Armenia hope their government will also take similar steps.