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Flipper washed up by cuts

LOS ANGELES - After years of risking flipper and fin for their nation, one of the US Navy's most elite squads has fallen victim to the same post-Cold War cuts which have swept through the rest of the ranks of the military, writes Phil Reeves.

The Pentagon has concluded that it no longer has enough work for a third of its dolphins, which have helped protect its anchored vessels in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to the Gulf War. The squad of 100, most of which are kept in pens in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego, California, are to be slimmed down to 70. Unwanted dolphins are being given early retirement which means, in some cases, life in a commercially-operated amusement centre performing tricks for tourists. According to a Pentagon spokesman, two laid-off dolphins were due to be delivered to Gulf World in Florida yesterday, and four more are to be sent to Gulfarium - also in Florida - in the next few days.

The fate of the dolphins, which are used for underwater search and ordinance disposal missions, has triggered a fierce dispute between the military and animal-rights activists. The Pentagon says the dolphins cannot be released into the wild because they may lack the survival skills.

'It is not that we don't like the idea. We just don't have enough information to be sure it could be done successfully,' said a Pentagon spokesman. Older dolphins, including 'Maui', 36, who served in Vietnam, are to be kept on in a naval dolphin 'retirement community'.

The activists disagree. They include Ric O'Barry, who trained 'Flipper', the star of the 1960s television series. Last year he freed a dolphin kept for six years in an amusement park. The animal is occasionally sighted, swimming with a group and catching its own fish.