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Dolphin trade draws spotlight on Cuba

HAVANA -- Cuba's dolphin-export business is in the spotlight again after US authorities fined a Nevada physician $70,000 for buying six dolphins from the socialist nation.

Graham Simpson, 53, has said he didn't think the purchase was illegal because he wasn't living in the United States at the time.

US authorities say any American who does business with Cuba risks up to 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000 and up.

Not all animal-protection activists agree with or even care about the US ban on trade with Cuba. But they say that if it helps them free even a single dolphin, they're glad to see it enforced.

The US fining of Simpson in August ''sends a message to other US citizens. If they buy dolphins, they will also be prosecuted," said Ric O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer on ''Flipper," the 1960s television show.

Cuba is a leading exporter of wild-caught bottlenose dolphins. Many are sold to aquatic parks where tourists pay as much as $150 to swim with them.

Animal-rights activists object to the business, which has quickly become a billion-dollar enterprise.

''Dolphins are routinely injured, suffer heart attacks, or drown in capture nets," said Gwen McKenna, 50, a Toronto activist. ''Many dolphins die from stress-related illnesses."

Guillermo Garcia, director of the National Aquarium of Cuba, said he's as worried about dolphins as anyone.

Tens of thousands die in fishing nets every year, he said. Pollution kills others. And don't forget, he said, the 200 dolphins taken from waters off the Solomon Islands in 2003.

He questioned why activists target Cuba.

''There are no more than 20 captive dolphins in Cuba, but there are more than 900 in the United States," he said. ''Why is there such an extreme preoccupation with dolphins in Cuba?"

As some activists see it, no country should be in the dolphin business. Period.

But even they wonder whether Cold War politics, bad intentions, or bad information has led to some outlandish claims about Cuban dolphins.

A November 2003 article titled ''Torture a Cuban dolphin in your own bathtub!" said Cuban marine scientists were injecting dolphins with the AIDS virus to see if the animals would produce antibodies.

Adding to the intrigue, Celia Guevara, daughter of legendary Argentine rebel Che Guevara, was allegedly leading the effort, wrote Carlos Wotzkow, a Cuban exile living in Switzerland.

O'Barry, who has traveled to Cuba to try to convince officials to stop selling dolphins, seriously doubts that the accusations are true.

Wotzkow couldn't be reached for comment. He wrote that he learned of the purported AIDS program while going to the aquarium to collect marine specimens for the National History Museum in Havana, where he once worked.

Cuban scientists have experimented with sharks to find medicines for humans, but no such work is done on dolphins, said Maida Montolio, assistant science director at the Havana aquarium.

''That's foolishness," she said.

She added that Guevara, a chief veterinarian at the aquarium, is a ''magnificent professional. And she doesn't deserve to have those things said about her."

The aquarium in Havana's Miramar neighborhood has drawn more than 20 million visitors since it opened in 1960. It features 74 tanks and exhibits containing fish and other marine life, but the dolphin and sea-lion shows are the biggest attractions.

Ticket prices are low -- less than 20 cents per person -- so all Cubans can afford to visit. The goal is to educate, not make money, Montolio said.

For several years now, workers have been renovating the facility and plan to add exposition halls, a museum, an underwater reef exhibit, and more.

''It's a way to raise the quality of life of the Cuban populace," Garcia said. ''The dolphins help us with all of that."

Profits from dolphin exports go toward aquarium expenses, maintenance, and expansion, he said.

From 1995 to 2000, activists say, Cuba sold more than 80 dolphins, outpacing Russia, with 65, and Indonesia, with 42.

''Cuba and Russia export the largest number of dolphins," McKenna said, ''because both countries are experiencing economic hardship and view dolphins as a disposable commodity that foreigners are willing to pay big bucks for."

Dolphins can fetch $20,000 to $60,000.

Simpson has since gotten out of the dolphin business. But the activists aren't through and are targeting a string of aquatic parks in Mexico and the Caribbean.

These companies are the ''McDonald's of the captive dolphin trade," O'Barry said, and have anywhere from 33 to 70 Cuban dolphins.

''Simpson," he said, ''is small potatoes."

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