Exhibit dolphins set free

The Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Dimples the dolphin arched over a 10-foot-high bar for the last time at Ocean World as the venerable attraction prepared to close Wednesday.

Outside, about a dozen protesters who want the park's dolphins retrained and released held up "Honk for Freedom" signs, and many passing motorists did.

Dolphins arouse strong protective feelings among their fellow mammals, humans, but people often disagree about what's best for the highly intelligent creatures.

"It makes people feel good to say 'Let's turn them loose and let them be free,'" said park veterinarian Scott Gearhart. "But the truth is, the wild is a harsh place to live."

At Ocean World, which officials say succumbed to a decline in tourist money and no room for expansion, the dolphins are fed fish caught by someone else and needn't fear fishing nets.

They also get health care.

"That's not ocean world," said protester Russ Rector, founder of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation. "That's tank and pool world. Ocean world is behind you." He gestured toward the nearby Atlantic.

Three years ago, federal officials said the park's dolphins were kept in an undersized pool in over-chlorinated water that made their skin peel. Three dolphins died at Ocean World that year, and a petting pool was closed in late 1990 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture found it was too small.

On Wednesday, Dimples and the other dolphins, seals and sea lions went through their paces, swimming with trainers, leaping into the air to ring bells, and waiting expectantly for fish after each trick.

"It's so sad," said demonstrator Sharon Francis of Miami. "People think the dolphins are smiling. They're not smiling."

Rector's group had hoped to have the attraction's 12 dolphins placed at the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in the Keys and offered to pay for their care. Ocean World refused, saying the facility didn't meet its strict standards for care and experience.

The Navy plans to retire several of its dolphins to Sugarloaf, where workers hope to release them. Boucher said he hopes to move the park's dolphins as a group. He plans an announcement within several days but wouldn't give any details.

Among the park's last visitors were Lori George of Miramar and her 5-year-old son, Michael. He participated in one of the shows, getting a kiss from Cleopatra, a whiskery California sea lion. Michael said he preferred it to one received recently from a classmate.

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