Is Lake Worth Mayoral Candidate a Dolphin Trafficker?

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Protestors at last night's forum

It's not unusual for politicians to want to hide controversial details of their lives: adulterous affairs, DUI arrests, bankruptcies. Leave to the reliably kooky city of Lake Worth to have this week's most interesting political scandal: rivals of mayoral candidate Rene Varela -- a marine mammal veterinarian -- say that he helps sell wild dolphins for profit.

On his campaign website, Varela claims that he has taught at such esteemed institutions as Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the University of Florida. His website says nothing of his involvement with Ocean Embassy, a company that is building a $500 million Sea World-style resort in Panama.  Ocean Embassy's website says Varela has been director of veterinary services since 2005. No one answered the phone at Ocean Embassy's offices today, and Varela has yet to respond to an email seeking comment.

Ocean Embassy has been no stranger to controversy.  Its plans to import wild mammals and offer swim-with-dolphins programs inspired protests throughout Panama; people started petitions and protested in the streets, and the Humane Society International even wrote to the president to try to stop the project. According to Panamanian news reports, Ocean Embassy fought back by having one of its critics, head of an animal welfare group, charged with criminal defamation. In September 2008, the Earth Island Journal reported that Ocean Embassy closed in the face in opposition (according to the article, polls showed that 80 percent of Panamanians opposed wild dolphin captures), but on September 1 of this year, a Panamanian business periodical reported that Ocean Embassy had announced plans to invest $300 million on the project, and the company's website suggests that development is still under way.

Varela was also a subject in the 2008 documentary Dolphin Dealer by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (The video can be seen here.) According to the CBC, Varela, in his duties with Ocean Embassy, helped capture and inspect dolphins in the Solomon Islands, then ship them to Dubai to provide entertainment at theme parks.

Last night at a candidate forum, some Lake Worth residents protested against Varela. The Palm Beach Post noted his employment, saying he was a "partner" in Ocean Embassy but that he would not discuss the company. Some activists plan to wear dolphin-inspired clothes or carry inflatable dolphins this week in protest.  Those include City Commissioner Suzanne Mulvehill, who said Varela's work "violates one of our civic virtues about environmentalism... If someone wants to exploit dolphins, what are they going to do to our city?"
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