LAS VEGAS (AP): In a scorched, landlocked desert on a balmy weekend, tourist Michelle Lynch was where you might expect her to be _ at the pool.
But she looked a little flustered. She was directed to run back and forth along the water's edge and wave her hands like she was the Scarecrow with no brain. She gamely complied, like the professional dolphin trainer she had become for the day.
Each wave of her hands, manipulated in the proper signaling fashion, conveyed a message that elicited a response from the animals.
"It's quick, so you're kind of like, listen to the trainer and look at the dolphin and try to remember what you're doing,'' said Lynch, a 30-year-old nursing assistant from Beloit, Wisconsin. "It's quick but it's fun.''
Since November, MGM Mirage Inc., the world's second largest casino operator, has been letting guests get up close and personal with six dolphins at the Siegfried & Roy Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat through its trainer for a day program at The Mirage hotel-casino.
Participants, who pay $500 (euro395) each, are put in wet suits and given whistles before being taught to help with such things as ultrasound medical checks and the hand signals that make the marine mammals jump, flip and dance.
Lynch's sister-in-law, Mary Davis, a 24-year-old loan processor from Las Vegas, was similarly wowed. She quickly got the knack for flicking her hand to the side _ which prompted the dolphin to swim to the middle of the pool and jump in the air _ and then dipping in her hand, where the dolphin would return to place its snout.
"I just love any of God's animals. It's amazing,'' Davis said. "It's really unexplainable. I'm trying to capture every single moment you know and I'm trying to remember what I'm supposed to be doing. And I get mesmerized by the animal.''
For trainer supervisor Jimmy Hudson, the dolphins make better students. "For me, it's the dolphins (that are easier to teach), but I enjoy working with the people a lot.''
It's not the only program of its kind in the world _ such hands-on experiences can be had for as little as $260 Australian (US$195; euro155) at Sea World on Australia's Gold Coast, or for as much as $630 (euro497.67)at Dolphins Plus, a research and education facility in Key Largo, Florida.
But it's certainly the only such program in the desert, or at a casino resort for that matter.
Resort executives hope the exclusiveness of the dolphin program _ it is limited to four participants a day _ and a posh, three-course poolside lunch at a shaded jungle bivouac draws visitors. Already, spots are booked solid for three months.
The program increases tourist traffic and provides free entertainment to visitors of the Secret Garden, who pay admission of up to $15 (euro12) each to see dolphins, white tigers, lions and panthers. Compared with last summer, ticket sales at the Secret Garden have increased 15 percent to nearly 2,000 a day.
"A lot of people didn't even know we had this experience in the back of The Mirage,'' said Scott Sibella, president of the property. "I mean where do you see live dolphins on the Strip? It's just unbelievable what we have back there.'' Lions and dolphins and sharks.
Tourists can snap photographs of the king of the beasts at MGM Grand's Lion Habitat or walk through transparent underwater tunnels at its Shark Reef aquarium at Mandalay Bay.
Animal-rights advocates believe no zoo can provide an ideal environment for animals meant to be in the wild.
"It's a difficult issue because the people that are going to see these dolphins, no question they genuinely care about the animals and want to learn about the animals and love the animals,'' said Dave Phillips, executive director of the conservation group Earth Island Institute in San Francisco. "We espouse trying to see dolphins in the wild in their natural environment.''
Unlike some other programs, Mirage participants don't swim with the dolphins, although they sometimes wade in to get the animals accustomed to strangers. Mike Muraco, director of animal care, said the program mimics what regular trainers do every day, which doesn't often include swimming in the pool.
Along with learning about medical checks, data entry on dolphin behaviors and how to act around the animals, participants are encouraged to get dirty by washing food buckets and seeing how to prepare a dolphin feast of capelin, herring, sardines and other fish.
"One day of anything doesn't prepare you to be a professional at any type of job, but it sure gives you a really good insight into whether this is a career you'd like to pursue,'' Muraco said. "You go home smelling like fish, which for a dolphin is a good thing and for a human, hey, it may not be.''
The program offers Strip visitors a way to actually interact with a variety of animals, which are on display at several hotel-casinos.
When they're not roaming a 8.5-acre (3.4-hectare) ranch outside Las Vegas, the lions at MGM Grand are behind floor-to-ceiling glass. Montecore, the 380-pound (171-kilogram) white tiger that mauled Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy in 2003, can only be seen behind fencing at the Secret Garden.
With the exception of a touching pool at the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay, where visitors can touch horseshoe crabs, California round stingrays and teeny Port Jackson sharks, most of the toothed nasties are kept safely from the tourists. Also off-limits are four Devils Hole pupfish, inch-long critters on the verge of extinction that recently were moved to the Shark Reef to breed.
Halfway through the day, Davis was flushed by her hands-on experience.
"I would do this any time,'' she said. "I would work with any kind of animal, except with maybe lions.''