Layoffs at Dolphinaris as facility prepares to temporarily close

SALT RIVER PIMA-MARICOPA INDIAN COMMUNITY, Ariz. (FOX 10) -- FOX 10 has learned that a number of staff members have been laid off at Dolphinaris.

Officials with Dolphinaris say earlier in the week the facility will temporarily close, starting on Friday, February 8, while an outside panel of experts reevaluate the facility, environmental factors, and all aspects of animal welfare at the facility.

The closure, officials say, is voluntary.

The announcement on Dolphinaris' temporary closure came just days after the facility announced the death of Kai, a 22-year-old dolphin that was euthanized following deteriorating health. Kai's death followed the deaths of three other dolphins -- Bodie, Alia, and Khloe -- since September 2017. Kai's death has sparked protests be animal

In an e-mail, Jen Smith with Dolphinaris said some employees were notified of layoffs on Tuesday, while some will remain. Smith said she has not been able to confirm the exact number of staff members being laid off.

Smith also wrote, in the e-mail, that she has not been made aware of any plans to close the facility permanently.

Marine experts say it can be difficult to know when a dolphin is sick.

"How do you know, really, how well an animal is doing?" said Yaiyr Astudillo-Scalia. "Dolphins, they look like they're always smiling, but they could be really struggling behind that smile."

Over the past two years, Dolphinaris has sold "Interaction Packages", allowing people to swim with, pet, and play with the dolphins. The marine mammals were also used in therapy programs for special needs children. Some conservationists wonder if the constant interaction with humans may have led to the infections that ultimately killed the four dolphins, who all died at a young age, compared to their life expectancy.

Through Astudillo-Scalia's experience and research with dolphins, she also believes the desert climate and enclosed pool could be factors that could compromise their immune system.

"That is going to be stressful, not just physical but also mentally. These animals are really smart," said Astudillo-Scalia. "If you, on top of that, have a group of people touching and petting them, that's going to add another stressor."

As for the remaining dolphins, they are going to be on the move.

"These are animals that normally live in a weightless environment and were removing them from that," said Astudillo-Scalia. She went on to say that after the dolphins are taken out of the water, they will be placed on stretchers to protect their internal organs, and then they will travel by plane.

"They are going to be manhandled throughout all these processes," said Astudillo-Scalia. "They have to be kept wet. They sometimes get really stressed because of the procedure, so they have to be given tranquilizers or some sort of sedative to help them calm themselves down, so it's definitely a big ordeal."

FOX 10 has reached out to Dolphinaris for details on the move, but officials have yet to respond.