Hard Rock silent on fate of Mirage dolphins, lions and tigers

Wrong move could be ‘black eye’ for new operator

By: - January 20, 2022 5:15 am
dolphin calf

Bella and a calf in 2019. Bella died in April of this year. (MGM Resorts press photo).

When Hard Rock International announced last month it was buying the rights to operate the Mirage from MGM Resorts International for $1.075 billion, the news release proclaimed the new owner would erect a giant guitar on the Las Vegas Strip, but made no mention of what would become of the dolphins, tigers, lions and leopards in captivity in the Mirage’s Secret Garden. 

“Additional information is not currently available at this time,” Stephanie Croteau of Coyne PR, a firm that represents the Hard Rock, told the Current last week. The Mirage did not respond to requests for comment. 

“The fact that Hard Rock apparently hasn’t given it much thought, or at least not to the point where they’re willing to say something to the media, isn’t promising,” says Naomi Rose, Ph.D. a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, an organization dedicated to ending animal suffering caused by humans. She says Hard Rock “doesn’t dabble in animal acts. So this might be a hot potato that they have no idea they’re about to put in their hands.”

Alan Feldman was the spokesman for the Mirage and later for MGM Resorts. He says the future of the Dolphin Habitat and Secret Garden likely depend on branding and best use of space.

“If the intent is to rebrand and change the personality, then you have to ask whether or not the Secret Garden and the Dolphin Habitat are going to be relevant in the new branding scheme. And I’m not quite certain that I would understand how that would fit in necessarily,” he says. “A second question, a very legitimate question – is there a different and better use for all of the property and what are their plans for that part of the property?”

Feldman says tourists are still eager to visit the Mirage’s animal attractions.

“There are zoos and aquariums all over the world and they’re doing incredibly well,” he says, adding the animals at the Mirage are “well cared for and the staff’s outstanding. So that could continue if that’s what the Hard Rock team would want. That’s a perfectly reasonable decision to make.”

Rose says companies that acquire facilities with captive animal attractions are often surprised at blowback from the public. 

“This is the post-Blackfish world we’re living in and if they’re unaware that the zeitgeist has shifted, that’s not being very savvy, business-wise,” Rose said, referring to the popular documentary about the plight of killer whales in captivity. “Hard Rock should have had some minions thinking about this. $1.1 billion is a big deal.” 

“I don’t think it’ll be a huge black eye to send the animals to another zoo, but it won’t make the Hard Rock look good,” Rose says. “And why would they gratuitously do something unpopular? If they don’t think about this more carefully, they’re going to end up looking bad, when in fact, they really have almost nothing to do with this issue.”

In 2014, Richard Branson, whose Virgin Hotel sits at the Paradise Road location previously occupied by the Hard Rock, announced The Virgin Pledge, “a commitment that Virgin businesses will only continue to work with suppliers that don’t take sea cetaceans from the wild,” Branson wrote, calling it “the first step in a long journey to end the use of captive cetaceans for human entertainment.”

Rose says the Hard Rock should be looking at options to transfer the dolphins to a sea-pen sanctuary, as the National Aquarium in Baltimore is planning to do with its dolphins and whales.   

“If you’re a new owner, as it were, of these kinds of animals, you should be thinking sanctuary, and if you aren’t, then you’re out of step,” Rose says. “And Hard Rock is about to look out of step if they’re not careful about this.” 

Hard Rock is under no obligation to notify the public should it sell or transfer the dolphins. It would only have to notify the government.  

Animal activists in Las Vegas hoped the change of ownership at the Mirage would put an end to the dolphin exhibit and allow its residents to live out their lives in a more natural setting. 

“I don’t think they’ll do anything with it,” says longtime animal rights advocate Linda Faso, who says the attraction is a moneymaker. “But I would like one of the national animal rights groups to have a marine biologist go in and meet with the Hard Rock.” 

Faso, in 1972, was the first person known to level allegations of animal abuse against former Las Vegas headliner Bobby Berosini, who was performing at Circus Circus at the time. 

Video of Berosini beating his chimps and orangutans backstage surfaced on Entertainment Tonight in 1989. Lawsuits and bad publicity ended his career.   

She and other animal advocates contend animal acts are falling out of favor in Las Vegas and elsewhere. 

“I think that’s a narrative, but I don’t think that’s true,” says illusionist Jay Owenhouse, who abandoned his plans to incorporate his tigers in a Las Vegas residency after Clark County planning officials recommended denial. “If you look at the National Finals Rodeo, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported attendance was within 4 or 5% of the record attendance that they had in 2014.”

“You have the Tournament of Kings at the Excalibur, which has 22 horses and stables,” says Owenhouse. “You have Criss Angel who uses doves and snakes in this show.” 

The public, he says, wants to know the animals are well cared for. 

But scientists contend dolphins, who can travel 60 miles a day in the ocean, are unsuited to live in what amounts to a shallow swimming pool.  

“These mammals have perfectly evolved to thrive in the ocean, where they deserve to live freely,” according to the Dolphin Project, founded by Ric O’Barry, who captured and trained the five dolphins who portrayed Flipper, immortalized in a 1960s television series. “Captivity simply cannot provide an adequate environment for these wild species.”

As a last resort, Faso says she hopes the Hard Rock will stop breeding dolphins “and eventually they would just die off.” 

Fifteen dolphins have been born in captivity at the Mirage since 1991.  Eight of the fifteen are dead, according to records compiled by http://www.cetabase.org. One was stillborn.  Another lived two weeks.  

The average age of the eight dolphins who died was five.  

The longest living captive-born dolphin at the Mirage is Huf n Puff, who is 21.  

Another four dolphins captured from the wild have died at the Mirage.

According to cetabase.org, which tracks marine mammals in captivity, Sigma was likely born in 1972, captured in 1975 and died in 2004 at the age of 32.  Banjo was likely born in 1972, captured in 1978 and also died in 2004. Merlin is estimated to have been born in 1970, was captured in 1982 and died in 1994.  

Darla is said to have been born around 1981, captured in 1985 and died in 1999.    

Dolphins in the wild live 40 to 60 years, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.    

The oldest dolphin at the Mirage is Duchess, who is estimated to be 46.  Duchess was born in the wild in approximately 1975 and captured in 1981.

The Mirage and its parent company, MGM Resorts International, have long contended the research conducted at the dolphin exhibit benefits endangered species in the wild. 

Rose says it’s untrue. 

“There are no publications that I’m aware of using the dolphins at The Mirage that are valuable to conservation of wildlife goals,” she says, adding there is Mirage research relevant to captive husbandry. “In other words, how can we keep these animals alive longer and breeding better?” 

Even that research, she says, is compromised because “the facility is in such an unnatural situation – a shallow-water habitat in the desert with full sun and no shade.”

Owenhouse says life in the wild is overrated. 

“What I’m not okay with is seeing the average white tiger in the wild spend seven days hunting to get one meal,” he says. “Google pictures of tigers in the wild or lions in the wild. Their life is not a good thing.”

“In 1900 there were 100,000 tigers in the wild,” Owenhouse says. “Today there’s less than 3,500. Most experts believe they will be extinct in the next 10 years.” 

The World Wildlife Fund says there are 3,900 tigers in the wild. Bengal tigers could be extinct by 2070, the organization says. Tigers in captivity outnumber those in the wild.  

“I think that the only future that animals like tigers have on this planet is going to not be in the wild,” Owenhouse says. “It’s going to be living in an environment that involves human care.”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.