GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - In Defense of Animals, an international animal protection organization, claims Gulfport's Institute for Marine Mammal Studies is one of the worst facilities for dolphins and whales in the country.
The organization released its list of Ten Worst Tanks for Dolphins and Whales in North America on Wednesday. IMMS landed at the number seven spot on the list.
In Defense of Animals said the name IMMS suggests an emphasis on scientific research and education, but claims the facility actually forces its dolphins to perform "unnatural" tricks. The organization also claims the facility causes harm to its dolphins by allowing visitors to swim with them in their tanks.
According to In Defense of Animals, dolphins and whales held in captivity die prematurely more frequently than those found in the wild. The organization claims aquatic mammals in captivity are forced to reproduce, are prematurely separated from their young, and are often confined to cramped and polluted conditions.
"The Institute of Marine Mammal Studies is a dolphin prison seeking to go mega in Mississippi; it plumbs the depths in exploitation of intelligent and sensitive animals," said In Defense of Animals President, Dr. Marilyn Kroplick.
IMMS Executive Director Dr. Moby Solangi said the statements made by the organization are "not based on facts and are very misleading."
Solangi says IMMS has been a leader in marine mammal research, education, and conservation for decades. He said the facility's "pioneering studies" help state and federal agencies better manage these species.
Solangi disputes the claims that marine mammals in captivity face shorter life spans than animals living in the wild.
He said dolphins and whales in the wild face problems with pollution, disease, predation, food shortages, natural disasters, and oil spills. Solangi said the animals that live under the care of humans are not exposed to these challenges.
Solangi added the marine mammals at IMMS are cared for by highly-trained professionals, and the facility is in full compliance with Animal Plant Inspection Services regulations.
According to Solangi, there is no evidence interactive programs, such as swim with the dolphins activities, have any negative effects on the health of the animals. He says the animals enjoy the interaction.
In a news release, In Defense of Animals is critical of what it calls "two cetacean captivity proposals" in the City of Gulfport. First is the Mississippi Aquarium, which is slated to open in Gulfport in early 2019. Second is an expansion project planned by IMMS.
Solangi points out IMMS is not involved with the Mississippi Aquarium. He goes on to say the expansion at IMMS will provide the facility with more advanced capabilities and a better environment for the animals housed there.
Solangi added many of the animals at IMMS cannot be returned to the wild because of health factors.