Dolphins trained by the Ukrainian army to conduct missions at sea have probably died because they refused to consume food provided by Russian caretakers, letting them starve to death, said a senior official in Kiev.
The facilities to train marine mammals in the Crimea is one of several Ukrainian assets that fell under the control of Russia in 2014 after the annexation of the territory by Moscow. Since then, the Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly requested the return of animals, which began training in 2012.
Four years later, Ukraine seems to have lost hope of seeing its trained animals again, as an envoy of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he had received reports that the dolphins had died.
“There is a very sad story about dolphins,” said Borys Babin, Poroshenko’s permanent representative in the Crimea, to the Ukrainian news site Obozrevatel. According to him, when the Russian forces annexed the peninsula and took control of the installation, the dolphins did not accept their new masters.
“The dolphins, trained by the [Ukrainian] naval forces in Sevastopol, communicated with their coaches through special whistles,” said Babin. “The Russians seized those whistles and gave the rest of the equipment belonging to the military unit, but the trained animals not only refused to cooperate with the Russian trainers, but they refused to eat and, consequently, they died.”
The installation is not very different from the Marine Mammal Program of the United States Navy, based in San Diego. In it, several dolphins and other marine mammals are trained to recover objects at sea and detect mines and other naval risks, as well as to alert officials and help rescue people who have fallen into the sea.
When Russian forces confiscated public buildings in the Crimea, Ukrainian military personnel from that region received offers to defect in favour of Russia or face deportation. Ukraine had allowed the Russians to use some of their facilities on the peninsula, and the invitation to join the Russian army divided the loyalties of the personnel in that region to the south of Ukraine, where the Russian language is spoken mainly.
“It is very sad that so many Ukrainian soldiers, deployed in the Crimea in 2014, took matters of desertion and flag loyalty much less seriously than these dolphins,” Babin added. Crimea was a hugely important part of Ukraine’s naval presence and housed two of the country’s four military ports in the Black Sea.
Sevastopol was the country’s main military port and annexation by Russia cost Ukraine two-thirds of its fleet, according to Reuters. Kiev has drawn up a plan to rebuild its naval presence with the help of the United States and NATO.
Babin’s story about the tragic fate of the dolphins produced heated online discussions about animals, the same in Ukraine as in Russia. Some people praised the dolphins, labelling them as heroes, while others disparaged Babin’s story.
“One can not speak of Ukrainian patriotism in relation to the dolphins of combat because, precisely under the Ukrainian government, the dolphins of the special forces … participated fully in commercial activities, and not underwater operations,” said Dmitry Belik, Russian representative in Sevastopol, to the state news agency RIA Novosti. It seemed to indicate that the facility now has relatively few or no dolphins but said that this could be attributed to the advanced age and the sale of those animals in the past.
In a statement to Channel 112 of Ukraine, Babin emphasized that, by ridiculing the story of the cause of death of the dolphins, the idea he wanted to express was overlooked.
“The issue is not related to a few mammals that died because they were obviously distressed, either because of their coaches or for other reasons,” he said on the air. “However, we can talk about another issue: during these years, unfortunately, our potential in several areas, including the naval, requires a significant improvement.”