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Thailand's booming animal attractions get animal welfare activists fired up

BANGKOK--The water is dark and smells like a rotten pond in summer. It fills a concrete hole roughly half the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

Pattaya Dolphin World has been giving tourists in the Thai resort town the chance to swim with dolphins, and outraging animal welfare activists, since it opened in 2011.

The proliferation of such places, where animals are paraded for photo opportunities and their wellbeing allegedly neglected, has drawn growing protest.

NGOs are mounting campaigns and protests to stop the opening of a separate dolphinarium in Phuket due to open in October.

“We are teaching children all the wrong things,” said Richard O'Barry, head of the conservationist group Dolphinproject.org.

“Children come to these shows and go away from them thinking that these places are where the animals belong,” said O'Barry, also the host of the award-winning 2009 documentary The Cove, which portrays the annual traditional killing of wild dolphins in a Japanese town.

The crowd at the Pattaya dolphinarium shows no awareness of the controversy. Laughter and squeals of delight fill the air as the dolphins perform tricks.

“That was amazing,” said Victoria Maltseva and Roman Lizander from Russia, holidaying in Thailand. They had each paid 2,500 baht (US$70) for the chance to swim with the animals, which include endangered species.

The dolphinarium displays two Irrawaddy Dolphins and a Indo-Pacific Humpback. The Indo-Pacific Humpback is listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Irrawaddy Dolphins are listed as critically endangered, and their commercial trade is forbidden.

“The rise of tourists from countries with less awareness of animal welfare issues has resulted in more of these cheap shows,” said Edwin Wiek, head of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, which works to rescue injured, tortured or trafficked animals and rehabilitate them to the wild where possible.

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