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Särkänniemi dolphins leave Finland for Greece

Owners of the Särkänniemi dolphinarium in Tampere relocated the facility’s four bottlenose dolphins to their new home in Greece during a covert operation Saturday night. The animals will live out the rest of their days at the Attica Zoological Park in the company of other dolphins.

Rahtikone Tampere-Pirkkalan lentokentällä
Animal rights activists said they were tipped off to the operation when a large cargo plane arrived at the Tampere-Pirkkala airport. Image: Kaisu Jansson / Yle

The departure of four bottlenose dolphins from the Särkänniemi marks the final phase of the amusement park’s plans to finally shutter the loss-making dolphinarium.

The dolphins - Veera, Delfi, Leevi and Eevertti – left Finland during the wee hours of Sunday morning for Greece, after an operation that lasted several hours.

According to Yle, the central Finland police department confirmed that they had been asked to provide security for the transfer operation, which began shortly after Särkänniemi Amusement Park closed its doors at 8.00 pm Saturday evening.

At that time, park workers erected a fence around the dolphinarium. Not long afterwards, two large trailers could be seen backing up to the facility. Shortly after midnight, four large white containers were loaded onto the vehicles – water could also be seen spilling over the sides of the containers, Yle reported.

The dolphins were then taken to the Tampere-Pirkkala airport where they were loaded into a waiting aircraft. Airports operator Finavia confirmed that the flight left for Athens at 4.48 am, slightly delayed from its original departure time of 4.00 am.

The four animals touched down in their new country of residence Sunday morning and were then taken to the Attica Zoological Park in Spata, about 20 km northeast of Athens.

Activists from the animal rights group Rights for Animals were on hand at Särkänniemi during the entire process. The group has long campaigned against keeping the animals in captivity and called for their release into the natural environment. They accused park management of a cover-up and pointed out in a web statement that the Attica park was not the best location for the dolphins since Greece had been slapped with a ban on importing dolphins.

Attica has also been targeted by animal rights activists opposed to keeping dolphins in captivity.

No fee involved in dolphin transfer

Särkänniemi officials broke their silence about the operation Sunday morning to confirm that the relocation had gone according to plan. The company said in a statement that the Attica Park had committed to caring for the animals and that no money had changed hands in the arrangement.

CEO Miikka Seppälä told Yle Sunday morning that the operation had not been publicised because of security concerns. He said that four trainers with whom the dolphins were familiar had also accompanied the animals to their new home and will remain with them full time for the next two to three months. Staff had also visited the facility ahead of the transfer, he added.

Särkänniemi said that the relocation plan had been the only real alternative for the animals.

"The Species Committee of the European Endangered Species Program, which falls under the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, gave a unanimous decision that the best location for the animals is Attica Park and that the animals should be sent there. Särkänniemi had to comply with the decision because the EPP’s species committee oversees endangered animals as well as dolphins’ conditions and solutions," the statement continued.

Dolphinarium closes after 30 years

The Särkänniemi Amusement Park opened its dolphinarium to audiences back in 1985. The dolphin exhibit was as controversial as it was popular, and it became the target of protests by animal rights activists.

Park owners decided to close the aquatic exhibit last autumn, citing "unprofitable business" and an "untenable cost structure". At the same time, it discontinued shows featuring the dolphins and focused on finding a viable retirement option for the animals.

Särkänniemi said that it had found a business partner who would begin new activities in the space vacated by the dolphinarium.

This story originally referred to a  Attica as a 'retirement' home for the dolphins. This could be misinterpreted as a place where they no longer take part in demonstrations or shows--an option promoted by animal rights activists but rejected by Särkäniemi. The dolphins will iventually take part in what Attica refers to as an 'educational programme' of demonstrations.

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