Dolphin aquarium location draws questions, concerns

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Dolphinaris opens next month. (Source: CBS 5 News) Dolphinaris opens next month. (Source: CBS 5 News)
"As soon as we put them in their new pool, the animals popped up and ate fish and they've been doing very well ever since," said Dr. Grey Stafford, who is the facility's general manager. (Source: CSB 5 News) "As soon as we put them in their new pool, the animals popped up and ate fish and they've been doing very well ever since," said Dr. Grey Stafford, who is the facility's general manager. (Source: CSB 5 News)
Dolphin Free AZ is a grass-roots organization whose sole purpose is to raise awareness and opposition to Dolphinaris. (Source: CBS 5 News) Dolphin Free AZ is a grass-roots organization whose sole purpose is to raise awareness and opposition to Dolphinaris. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Stafford says his team of trainers and full-time veterinarian are dedicated to making sure the animals stay healthy and happy in their new desert home.  (Source: CBS 5 News) Stafford says his team of trainers and full-time veterinarian are dedicated to making sure the animals stay healthy and happy in their new desert home. (Source: CBS 5 News)
While the protesters have resigned themselves to the fact that Dolphinaris is opening soon, they say they're determined to continue their campaign. (Source: CBS 5 News) While the protesters have resigned themselves to the fact that Dolphinaris is opening soon, they say they're determined to continue their campaign. (Source: CBS 5 News)
SCOTTSDALE, AZ (CBS5) -

Animal rights activists are raising questions about the location of a new dolphin aquarium that is set to open in mid-October. The facility is adjacent to Scottsdale but within the borders of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which means it is not subject to local and county ordinances or state animal welfare laws.

"Because they're so controversial, the public should be involved through public hearings on that permitting process, and that didn't occur," said Courtney Vail, a longtime activist on issues relating to whales and dolphins.

Vail and other protesters say they were left out of the process by which Dolphinaris Arizona and Odysea Aquarium were permitted to open their doors on tribal land. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is a sovereign nation, which means it is governed by its own laws and regulations.

"We are not able to know or understand how that business license was granted and whether we have any recourse. As far as I know, we don't," said Vail.

Dolphinaris Arizona

When it opens in October, Dolphinaris will allow adults and children to learn about, touch and swim with its trained bottlenose dolphins. The five dolphins arrived last month, coming from the Six Flags Discovery Kingdom park in California. All five of the dolphins were born and raised in captivity.

"As soon as we put them in their new pool, the animals popped up and ate fish and they've been doing very well ever since," said Dr. Grey Stafford, who is the facility's general manager.

Stafford says his team of trainers and full-time veterinarian are dedicated to making sure the animals stay healthy and happy in their new desert home. But there are lots of critics who argue that this is no place for these intelligent sea creatures.

RELATED: Dolphins arrive for controversial oceanarium in Valley

Dolphins are "different"

The main reason Dolphinaris and other "swim with the dolphins" programs are controversial is that dolphins are among the few living creatures that are "self-aware." When they see themselves in the mirror, they know at whom they are looking.

Stories of dolphins helping to rescue drowning swimmers and saving people from shark attacks are common in many seaside communities.

"You look at them and you see these intelligent animals and they just deserve so much better," said Lisa Arnseth, who co-founded Dolphin Free AZ. It is a grass-roots organization whose sole purpose is to raise awareness and opposition to Dolphinaris.

"Other places are phasing out captivity and here we are bringing in this brand new facility," said Arnseth.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore recently announced it is phasing out its captive dolphin program and has plans to move its dolphins to a preserve in the ocean. The federal government is proposing a ban on swimming with dolphins near Hawaii. The island of Maui instituted a ban on captive dolphin programs, as did Malibu, CA and the state of South Carolina.

Local and state regulations do not apply on the reservation

New ordinances and laws would not apply here because the tribal community is sovereign.

Still, Dolphinaris is required to abide by federal law, and that means it must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. APHIS, as it is known, has already visited and pre-cleared Dolphinaris.

"We couldn't bring these animals here and we certainly couldn't open up to the public without that federal oversight," Stafford said.

While the protesters have resigned themselves to the fact that Dolphinaris is opening soon, they say they're determined to continue their campaign.

"We're going to keep on protesting. We're going to keep on educating everybody in the community that we can reach," said Arnseth.

RELATED: General manager of Dolphinaris responds to opposition

Copyright 2016 KPHO (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

Click to learn more about Morgan .

Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards , two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. Last fall, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle, in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is a graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

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