An investigation into the deaths of three bottlenose dolphins which were previously kept at the Mediterraneo Marine Park showed levels of “negligence and mismanagement”, according to a report published by the Commissioner for Animal Welfare (CAW). 

In August, animal rights group Animal Liberation Malta raised the alarm that three female dolphins at the park had gone missing from their tanks and were most likely dead and accused the park of trying to cover up the deaths and avoid scrutiny.

Subsequently, Times of Malta revealed that the three captive dolphins Mar, Onda and Melita had died of lead poisoning, most likely due to a split-weight bag that had shed pellets in the dolphins’ pool and got caught in the filtration system. 

In her observation and conclusions, Commissioner Alison Bezzina said that despite the unconventional way in which these dolphins had died, the Veterinary Regulation Division (VRD) was slow to act and when it did, did not exhibit any particular urgency in its search for answers. 

As legally required, Mediterraneo had informed the VRD of the death of each dolphin within a few days, however, the department only visited the park roughly a month after the third death was reported. The visit had been pre-scheduled and was a routine inspection for relicensing purposes that did not address the dolphins’ untimely deaths. 

“This delayed and broad-based action by the VRD does not match the seriousness of the incident,” the report said. 

“The very bare minimum that CAW would have expected in reaction to such an extraordinary and tragic event, is for the VRD to pay MMP a visit, conduct an inspection and open an investigation within days of the third dolphin’s death. Not only was this not done, but nine months after the dolphin deaths, the VRD claimed not to have yet concluded its investigation.” 

Furthermore, the VRD told the Commissioner in July that Mediterraneo was still waiting for laboratory results from a foreign pathology expert, but when these were received, the documents were dated August and September of 2021, the year prior. 

“This unnecessary postponement is indicative of extremely slow practices within the VRD and/or a general lack of transparency,” the Commissioner said. 

The VRD had only asked Mediterraneo for an official statement some nine months after the death had occurred. Whatsmore, Bezzina highlighted a discrepancy in the VRD’s explanation of how the lead pellets had ended up in the tank and that of the park. 

The VRD’s first explanation to the CAW was that the lead pellets had presumably originated from abandoned diving equipment that had been dumped in the sea close to the park’s aspiration valves. However, Mediterraneo maintained that this was impossible due to the structure of the pump.

The park told the Commissioner that the likely source of the lead pellets was a weight bag that had been misplaced by a sub-contracted support diver who was hired to clean the tanks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“CAW is therefore particularly concerned on how the VRD had initially reached a different explanation to the one readily and easily offered by MMP, when MMP’s own explanation about the source of the lead pellets, is by far more blameworthy,” the report said. 

Despite the VRD having written off the deaths as a “pure accident” the report found that Mediterraneo should still be held “somewhat responsible” for oversights that lead to the deaths of the three dolphins. 

Mediterraneo had allowed a contracted diver to enter the animals’ tank without checking that the banned weight bags were not in use. Furthermore, a park employee disobeyed park protocol and performed a backwash procedure, despite it being forbidden. It then took until February 2022 for the park’s new supervising manager, on his own initiative, to make sure that all the lead pellets had been removed from the filtration system. 

When this was subsequently examined, another kilogram of lead pellets was found badly corroded in the debris, increasing the risk of another toxicity incident. 

“Whilst the VRD concluded that this was a “pure accident”, MMP readily admit to two operational oversights. Whilst both actions did not purposefully intend to harm the animals, both carried a certain level of negligence or mismanagement on the part of MMP,” Bezzina said. 

“Whilst CAW appreciates that this was not a case of MMP causing voluntary harm to animals or even one of blatant neglect, a degree of negligence was involved and therefore disagrees with the VRD’s assessment of it being a ‘pure accident’.”

“Finally, it is CAW’s opinion that the VRD conducted a cursory and fleeting investigation only after being pushed by CAW’s inquiries that started in February 2022. The matter merited far more scrutiny, attention, a more immediate response, and much more in-depth examination by the VRD.”

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