As Pietro Pecchioni walks up the steps leading to a three-million-litre water tank at Mediterraneo Marine Park, two dolphins glide hurriedly towards him from across the pool, rest their bellies on a shallow ledge and look at him earnestly.
One of the dolphins is casually poking its head through a hula hoop.
Ninu, 12, and Cha, 11, were born in the park in 2010 and are highly trained to obey instructions at the flick of the trainer’s finger, swim around visitors, playfully splash them with water, wave their flippers in clapping motion, make different noises on cue, breach at fascinating heights and float upside down for belly rubs.
Mediterraneo runs a programme which allows guests to swim with captive dolphins for 30 minutes against a fee, but activists have been calling for the park to close down, arguing that despite operating under the guise of an educational facility, it is nothing short of a circus, where Ninu, Cha, and other dolphins are held in captivity and forced to perform tricks for an audience.
Malta banned animal circuses in 2014 but still allows facilities to operate as zoos, but activists insist the park is not a zoo because zoos do not force wild animals to perform tricks and neither do they allow people to interact with them.
But Pecchioni, who is the supervising manager at the park, rejects the criticism and denies any animal cruelty, insisting that the dolphins are, by their nature, social animals, and are only behaving the way they naturally do in the sea.
In a circus, wild animals are forced to behave in ways that are not natural to them but at the Mediterraneo Marine Park dolphins follow their natural instincts, he explained.
“They jump in the sea and they jump here. It’s natural. It’s not a circus and it’s not a show, but an educational presentation about the beauty of our environment.”
‘Beauty of nature’
Mediterraneo Marine Park invited Times of Malta to tour and film the park and ask questions last week, as the park was bracing itself for another activist protest the day after.
“Our dolphins are educational ambassadors to their species because they demonstrate the beauty of nature to visitors, educate them and raise awareness on how crucial it is to take care of the environment,” Pecchioni said.
During one of the presentations that Times of Malta filmed on a different day, one dolphin could be seen pushing its trainer around the pool from behind. This trick was not performed on the day that our crew was formally invited to film.
The Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq park has been riddled with controversy since it opened its doors in 1997, especially last August when Times of Malta revealed that three female dolphins died at the park last year after ingesting material which contained lead.
Pecchioni, an Italian biologist, was not responsible for the park back then. He took the helm a few months ago but described the incident as wrong and as a tragic moment for the park, the animals and their carers.
Ninu, Cha, and three other dolphins also ingested the lead poison, but after months of treatment, they survived. The other three did not, he explained.
“Someone lost a lead bag in the tank and the dolphins tragically ingested it. And lead poisoning is very difficult to treat,” he said.
“It is a tragic accident, but it does not mean that the animals here are treated with cruelty. It means it is a tragic accident that we will make sure is never repeated.”
With three female dolphins dead, the park is now left with five male dolphins.
Activists became even more furious when they learned the park deliberately did not inform the public about the incident, but Pecchioni said he understands why the previous administration acted that way.
“The park’s legal duty was to inform the Maltese authorities, and it did that immediately. The most important thing is that the administration did not hide anything from the authorities,” he said.
“But in hindsight, if a similar incident were to happen again, I would probably immediately inform the public as well.”
Mediterraneo veterinarian Julia Abarca said that detecting illness in dolphins is even trickier, because wild animals instinctively hide their symptoms.
“They cannot afford to look weak in the wild, so they instinctively hide their symptoms very well, so that they are not quickly targeted by predators. They will only show clear signs when it’s too late,” she said.
Zoo or circus?
Dolphins at the park are encouraged to perform different behaviours in front of crowds through a system of positive reinforcement. They are given treats whenever they perform the desired behaviour, and activists are concerned over how ethical this practice is.
But Pecchioni said the animals are fed and well kept, regardless of whether they demonstrate the behaviours.
“Sometimes, the dolphins will refuse to demonstrate a certain behaviour in front of people. To us, that is a sign that they don’t feel like doing it. And if they don’t feel like doing it, then we don’t do it. We move on to the next behaviour,” he said.
The carers also give the dolphins ice cubes, which they say help keep them hydrated.
To the activists, this is a sign that the water temperature in the park tanks is too warm, causing the dolphins to become dehydrated. Dolphins in the wild do not need to suck on ice cubes, they argue, so the dolphins in captivity must be living in conditions that are, at least, not ideal to their nature.
But Pecchioni denies the dolphins are in any way living in conditions worse than their natural habitat and says the ice cubes are simply an added benefit to their diet.
At the park, their physical health and wellbeing is being cared for in a much more sophisticated way than the sea, he said.
Mediterraneo Marine Park is also home to sea lions, reptiles, tortoises, parrots and hundreds of birds, and staff also perform what they call ‘educational presentations’ with these animals.
Times of Malta could observe that while the birds live in a massive, enclosed space with ample space to fly around, the reptiles are kept in much smaller, glass-fronted vivariums, and are kept in even smaller, plastic boxes when they are moved to the site of the presentation.