Gray Matters: The Minnesota Zoo's Dolphin Problem

Everyone loves the dolphins at the Minnesota Zoo. When one of them dies unexpectedly, especially a young pup, it raises uncomfortable questions about both the dolphins and those of us who love them.

Dolphin at Minnesota Zoo
Cameron Wittig
Updated May 15, 2012, 4:24 p.m.

Editor's Note: The story you are about to read was reported and written in the weeks leading up to the Minnesota Zoo's unexpected announcement that it will no longer exhibit dolphins at Discovery Bay. After the dolphin tank is repaired, it will be used for another type of aquatic exhibit. Allie and Semo are being sent to another facility. "Gray Matters" outlines the challenges the zoo faced with the dolphin exhibit.

IT'S 10 IN THE MORNING on April Fools’ Day, and I’m at a dolphin birthday party. Allie, one of the Minnesota Zoo’s two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, is turning 25 today, and she seems delighted to have company. I kneel at the edge of Allie’s pool alongside a 9-year-old girl from Maplewood and her mom. The girl has seen Warner Brothers’ Dolphin Tale, the movie about a Florida aquarium that equips a bottlenose dolphin with a prosthetic tail, too many times to count. She tells anybody who will listen that she’s been planning to be a dolphin trainer for as long as she can remember.

The girl, her mom, and I try to compose ourselves as we watch the silver streak in the pool rip through three laps, pivoting her body just enough to cock a curious eye in our direction each time she glides past. Two of the zoo’s dolphin trainers, cheerful young women in official zoo polo shirts with silver whistles around their necks, chirp commands and make hand signals as Allie rises halfway out of the water to execute a balletic 360-degree spin, à la Miss Piggy’s synchronized-swimming dream sequence in The Great Muppet Caper.
A trainer in the water at one of the zoo’s dolphin presentations.

At the beck of the trainer’s call, Allie swims close and holds still long enough for us to stroke her side. Then she pops out of the water with her big dolphin perma-smile, posing for photos snapped by a zookeeper. (I load the adorable dolphin portrait onto my Facebook page as soon as it shows up in my inbox.)

After each task, the trainers toss Allie dead sardines, or green gelatin cubes, or bits of ice (dolphins really dig ice) as a reward. And at the end of Allie’s short performance, we get to feed her fish and gelatin ourselves. When we’re done hanging out with Allie, we are introduced to Semo, who, at 47 years old, is one of the oldest dolphins in human care. If Allie is a sleek platinum-streaked Michelle Pfeiffer, Semo is a gnarled Kirk Douglas type, with skin three shades darker than Allie’s, a grizzled dorsal fin, and tooth marks along his sides that speak to years of asserting his authority in tanks like this.

It’s awesome being so close to Allie and Semo, probably the 9-year-old-girl version of being backstage with Keith and Mick. But we’re not that VIP: Today’s “Dolphin Encounter” is a class offered every few weeks to those willing to pay $150 to spend a few hours up close with the dolphins of Discovery Bay.

Did you know dolphins have belly buttons? Or that their skin feels exactly like a wet balloon? Or that they get all of their water from the 25 pounds of fish they consume each day? These are the things you learn encountering a dolphin on a Sunday morning at the zoo. And petting a dolphin is amazing. But more than anything, you walk away with a sense of mystery and amazement.

The closer you get to dolphins and the more you learn about dolphins, the more you want to know about dolphins. In fact, during the whole two-hour tour, there’s only one off note, and it comes from an awkwardly timed question. During a half-hour of classroom work before the actual encounter, Dawn the zookeeper brings out a laptop and leads us through a computerized dolphin-centric version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The 9-year-old aces nearly every answer, but then she asks a question that lands with a thud. “Is that baby Taijah?” she wonders about a stock dolphin baby photo. Dawn the zookeeper tightens her smile and answers, “No.”

Taijah, the baby dolphin the 9-year-old is asking about, was Allie’s year-and-a-half-old pup, and she died in early February, possibly from a bleeding ulcer that wouldn’t heal. There were television news reports and stories written in the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press immediately after her death, but the official cause remains uncertain. Although it’s unknown what causes stomach ulcers in dolphins, they’re not uncommon. But this ulcer shouldn’t have killed Taijah. And this latest death comes at a potentially awkward moment for the zoo: Taijah is the zoo’s sixth dolphin fatality since 2006, an inconvenient statistic for an institution planning on an $8 million renovation of Discovery Bay this fall, primarily financed by the state of Minnesota (the zoo is one of the last state-run zoos in the country). And this all comes at a time when dolphins in captivity are facing unprecedented scrutiny by the scientific community.