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Theme park pool found inadequate for three dolphins

Federal investigators have found the dolphin playpool at Ocean World is too small and are thoroughly checking the marine theme park, officials said Wednesday. Ocean World president George Boucher confirmed for the first time that the attraction is under "full review" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that the dolphin playpool is too shallow to meet federal standards.

The rectangular pool, which looks much like a backyard swimming pool and contains three dolphins that can be fed and petted by the public, must be at least 6-feet deep in most areas, according to federal regulations.

Ocean World's pool is 3{ feet deep at one end and deepens at the other end to 8 feet, Boucher said. He added that the pool did meet federal requirements when it was built.

He denies recent comments by animal-rights activists that the dolphins are mistreated at the park.

"It just isn't true," he said. "The playpool is probably one of the most graphically educational exhibits (where) the public can really get a view of these wonderful creatures up close," Boucher said. "And I think it's as enjoyable for the animals as it is for the humans."

Ocean World and three other theme parks and zoos in Florida have been or will be investigated in the coming months. The investigations are part of a program of more aggressive enforcement of federal regulations on the treatment of dolphins, sea lions, seals, whales and sea otters.

The investigation of Ocean World has been under way since at least July, Boucher said.

He said the park is exploring options to comply with federal standards, including possibly draining the playpool, temporarily relocating the dolphins to another area and deepening approximately one-third of the pool.

Richard O'Barry, Flipper's former trainer and director of the Dolphin Project, an activist group, said, "The petting pool is the most abusive aspect of these places. The petting pool will be closed, or we (group members) will be there forever."