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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.

SemoAllie

BULLIES, STRESS, AND ULCERS

A couple weeks before my Dolphin Encounter, I’m sitting in a conference room at the zoo’s offices, talking to biological director Kevin Willis about his dolphin population. Kelly Lessard, the zoo’s public relations manager, sits in on the 90-minute free-flowing conversation. Willis has been at the zoo since 1997, and he’s been the director of biological programs since 2002. His dad was a business professor at the University of Minnesota who took his son to as many state and national parks as the family wagon could reach. Later, Willis developed a strong background in conservation ecology and genetics, continuing the work pioneered by Dr. Eugene Odum at the Savannah River Ecology Lab in Georgia. After that, Willis blazed his own trail, working on the science of captive breeding for endangered species around the world for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the early ’90s. “I still teach a weeklong course for them,” he says. “Population Management 101.” Then, in sotto voce, “studbook keeping.”

At the Minnesota Zoo, Willis is in charge of animal health, the vet staff, the keeper staff, animal care, animal reproduction—everything to do with the animals. He’s the type of affable science geek who’s quick with a “fun fact.” And he peppers the conversation with them. (Otter anatomy fun fact: “They don’t have any blubber, so they have to keep themselves in constant motion to stay warm. That’s why they’re the most expensive animals to feed.” What ozone does to carbon in H2O: “It breaks down carbon molecules. That’s why you don’t smell chlorine in our pools—we don’t use chemicals to keep them clean.”)

Willis has a well-trimmed white beard and a scoutmaster vibe. He seems like a sensitive—even chivalrous—guy. At one point while explaining one of the six deaths, a stillbirth where there was a large amount of blood leaking into the pool, he apologizes to Lessard: “Sorry. This is unpleasant for females.” At another point he uses a euphemism for dolphin sex when talking about Allie’s renewed libido in the wake of the death of her pup. “It wasn’t a month after Taijah died that Allie was just, uh, I’ll have to be polite,” he stammers. “She was soliciting Semo’s attention. She was really, really soliciting his attention.” Lessard giggles at two dudes being so Victorian about dolphin intercourse when I ask, “Ahem . . . uh, is he still able to return her attention?” (He is—in fact, Semo sired Taijah.)

Willis is aware that the zoo’s dolphins are becoming more controversial. He’s aware of articles such as “Are Dolphins Too Smart for Captivity?” in Science Magazine, and he’s seen movies such as the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove about the annual dolphin hunting drive in Taiji, Japan. Willis has his own take on these issues; he disparages The Cove for playing Hollywood with “the facts” and he points out that dolphins live longer in captivity than they do in the wild, an assertion arrived at by his own statistical analysis. There are, of course, many who understand his facts differently, but as with any hot scientific topic, whether it’s global warming or Pluto’s planet status, pros can be cited for every con, and cons for every pro.

And ultimately, Willis realizes that he can’t do much to influence public perception once it breaks a certain way. “Things do change,” he says. When he was a kid growing up in St. Anthony Park, he frequented the Como Zoo, and the old Bear Grotto, a squalid faux-cave housing a 500-pound bear, was acceptable. “Now it’s not.”

Willis is in an uncomfortable spot. As a guy who works at an institution flattened by the affection of children on a daily basis, he’s obviously more comfortable with Channel 5 coming to ask him if it can shoot footage of a new baby buffalo for 5, 6, or 10 than he is answering questions about why his dolphins are dying. Still, he consents to allow me to take part in the Dolphin Encounter program, as well as to interview his head dolphin trainer, Diane Fusco (although under his and Lessard’s supervision), and the veterinary staff he works with at the U of M. But whether it’s because of chivalry (his dolphin training staff is 100 percent female) or because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, he draws the line at allowing access to the rest of the seven-member marine mammal training staff.

“The main reason I protect my staff is because I don’t want their name in the paper. I don’t want people in the general public to be able to contact them directly,” he says. These are people who are deeply affected by losing an animal—he points out that one trainer told him she spends more time with the dolphins than she does with her husband. “And I don’t want somebody going through looking for every Joan Smith and calling them up and asking, ‘Are you the one who had a dolphin die on you?’ They can call me,” he says. “I get the big bucks.”

The trainers employ operant conditioning using positive reinforcement such as food and toys to work with the dolphins.

Lessard underlines Willis’s point that he’s the training staff’s John Wayne in her own words: “Kevin is the dolphin guy, for all dolphin questions.”

Even though I have Willis’s blessing to talk to the U of M veterinary staff, senior veterinarian Arno Wunschmann declines to speak with me, citing “the controversial nature of dolphins in captivity.” At Willis’s behest, Wunschmann releases the six necropsy reports on file since 2006 and agrees to answer e-mailed follow-up questions about the reports. This is the short version: One of the dolphins was a stillborn calf (2009), another was a dolphin with a congenital spine defect that lived 10 years longer than was predicted by the zoo’s medical staff before being euthanized (2006), two others died of what can be considered old age or at least natural causes (in both cases “respiratory failure,” one in 2006 and one in 2011). There’s nothing technical, no smoking gun such as an aquarium defect or bad fish, to blame for this run of bad luck. But two of the deaths are more troubling than the rest.

The first one, one of the three fatalities that took place in 2006, was Harley, a 7-month-old dolphin that ran into a wall between the pools. “It was a freak accident,” Willis says. “We were teaching him how to swim between the pools, and my analogy is you’ve taught your toddler how to go up and down the stairs, and he decides to do it by himself instead of waiting for mom and he falls. That’s what we think happened to Harley. We know there were trainers there and they heard a thump and they looked over and Harley had just hit the wall. And he was going fast enough to crack his skull.”

The necropsy has a different account. “The animal [Harley] was seen swimming in the pool without any evidence of disease during a training session on January 21, 2006,” it begins on U of M letterhead. “Few minutes later the dolphin was found on the deck and pushed back in the water since it appeared to be otherwise healthy. Few minutes later, blood was seen coming from the blowhole (under water) and attempts to nurse the animal by the mother were unsuccessful. A few minutes later, the animal was dead on the bottom of the pool at around 2:30 pm.” Toward the end of the report Wunschmann offers his conclusion: “The lesions of the head, skull, and brain are consistent with a massive trauma to the head causing fracture and meningeal and cerebral hemorrhage. The exact nature of the trauma is difficult to determine. The presence of soft tissue hemorrhage on both sides of the skull may indicate trauma from both sides at the same time or two (or more) subsequent traumatic events. The fractures occurred on the right side of the skull. This indicates that the most significant force was from the right side.”

Dolphins have an amazing anatomical ability to see their world acoustically. This superhero-esque sense is called echo-location, the ability to pitch a sound at an object or surface and receive a reading of where it is and what it looks like. Sort of like dolphin sonar. (Scientists have observed dolphins using their echolocation to see underneath the surface of the ocean while fishing for prey hiding under the sand.) This skill makes it seem unlikely that a dolphin would make the mistake of running into a wall or jumping clear out of a pool, but it does happen, according to Lori Marino, a dolphin and whale neurologist working out of Emory University in Atlanta.

Dolphins have an amazing anatomical ability to see their world acoustically. This superhero-esque sense is called echolocation, the ability to pitch a sound at an object or surface and receive a reading of where it is and what it looks like.

“It’s possible that [Harley] was running from another animal,” she says. The multiple trauma suffered from both the left and the right side of his cranium seems to indicate that Harley didn’t hit the wall head-on; rather, he either jumped or was thrown out of the pool, and either his head bounced when he came down on the deck or he was smashed into the wall by one of the five other dolphins living in the pool at the time.

Willis acknowledges that these are powerful animals, and at times they act aggressively toward one another. For example, he says, one of their dolphins used its fluke to flip a pup up onto the deck of the pool while the pup was swimming alongside its mother.

When Harley was alive, two dominant males lived in the pool, Semo and another middle-aged male, Chinook, who has since been moved to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

The other puzzling fatality is the one that happened in February: Taijah’s. “We suspected she had a stomach ulcer,” Willis says. “We were treating her for an ulcer, and she was found to have an ulcer on necropsy.” Treating dolphins for stomach ulcers with an antacid injected in their fish is a common treatment at zoos and aquariums, he says. “Their stomachs are fairly acid because they have to digest fish bones. So it’s not uncommon to put them on medication. You put them on antacid and you don’t give them the largest fish, herring. You feed them capelin and mackerel. Ballpark for a dolphin is 20 to 25 pounds a day.”

I ask how it was determined that Taijah was suffering from an ulcer. “The number one clue is they stop eating. Taijah had been eating fine, and then about Thursday she decreased her consumption. That’s when we got a bit concerned. The vets came up, got a blood sample. Things looked all right. We decided to put her on stomach antacid, and she ate some, just not the normal amount. We had people staying overnight. Whenever a dolphin starts dropping consumption, we start monitoring breath rate. We had no idea that it was going south this quickly.” Willis says his staff informed him that Taijah skipped what would be her last meal on Sunday night, so they decided to “get their hands on her” on Monday morning. “We got our hands on her, got a blood sample. Everything seemed fine,” he says. “We gave her medication to help her appetite and her stomach issues, because we were suspecting ulcer.” He shakes his head. “We put her back in the pool, and she passed away later that night.”

The zoo is asking for $8 million from the state to renovate the Discovery Bay dolphin exhibit.

The necropsy connects Taijah’s rapid downward spiral to two precipitating details: a broken tooth that remained from a broken jaw she incurred a few months earlier (“We believe it was from an encounter with Allie,” Willis says) and a traumatic acoustic event that Willis did not mention. “On Thursday, February 2,” the report states, “the dolphin [Taijah] was observed to be squinting her right eye. Fire-alarm testing occurred in the building causing nervous behavior to be displayed by the dolphin and her mother.”

While Willis attributes most dolphin ulcers to acid and bacteria, he admits that stress may be a factor, but like Wunschmann in the necropsy, he leaves the relationship inconclusive. “It’s a contributing factor, but it’s not a causative factor necessarily,” he says. But Willis clearly understands that there is a connection. In a later conversation about future plans for Discovery Bay, he laments the state of the concrete seats in the dolphin arena, and says workers had to suspend drilling wooden benches in the amphitheater because the drilling was causing the dolphins obvious stress. But he also points out that it’s his understanding that the ambient acoustic level in the ocean is higher than in an aquarium’s pool. As with his statistical analysis of their longevity in captivity vs. in the wild, his underlying point is obvious: Dolphins are better off under our care.

SOCIAL CREATURES

Zoos have always been a place where our sense of wilderness uncomfortably runs up against our understanding of the limits on our own civilization. Think of the 19th-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke and his captive panther; by the end of the second stanza, it’s unclear whether he’s writing about the panther or himself:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that as our understanding of the animals we keep in cages becomes more and more sophisticated, especially animals with brains of a similar size and function to our own—found in such large mammals as elephants, great apes, and dolphins—our feelings about keeping them in cages become more conflicted. In 2000, dolphin and whale neurologist Lori Marino published what is regarded as a groundbreaking mirror study, in which she demonstrated self-awareness in bottlenose dolphins. Repurposing an experiment that had previously been used with chimpanzees, Marino marked X’s on the dolphins’ sides and faces, in locations beyond their peripheral vision, and placed a mirror in their tank at the New York Aquarium. The dolphins went to the mirror to examine the markings. Prior to Marino’s research, self-recognition only had been observed in higher primates.

“You can throw stuff down there, give them Hula-Hoops and balls to play with and call that enrichment, but really it’s nothing. They get bored really easily. Because what’s enriching for them are their social groups.”
—Lori Marino, dolphin and whale neurologist

Since Marino’s study, scientists have observed dolphins using tools (using sponges to protect their snouts as they fish off the coast of Australia), having a dolphin “culture” (passing down skills between generations), and even using language (orcas, the largest member of the dolphin family, have different clicking dialects). All of these characteristics emphasize the species’ social ability. With a range spanning thousands of miles in the open ocean, dolphins in the wild freely associate among vast social groups, sometimes in numbers that would be the envy of the most popular Facebook users.

Since her study, Marino has gone through a sort of moral awakening, coming to the conclusion that dolphins are too socially sophisticated to live in zoos and aquariums. “We’re talking about animals that are so intelligent, and so socially complex, the idea of ‘environmental enrichment’ for them in captivity is really tough,” she says. “You can throw stuff down there, give them Hula-Hoops and balls to play with and call that enrichment, but really it’s nothing. They get bored really easily. Because what’s enriching for them are their social groups. And they can never have that in captivity.”

If dolphins can be bored, if they can bully other dolphins, if they can feel enough anxiety to cause themselves ulcers, should we perhaps rethink how appropriate it is to keep them at the zoo? As I reported this story, I began to wonder if I was experiencing a similar awakening. I’m not an animal rights activist—I eat meat and I grew up going to zoos.

My dad’s best friend was the director of the aquatic building at Como Zoo for 30 years before becoming a consultant for places such as the Great Lakes Aquarium and Sea Life Aquarium at the Mall of America. Denny was a truck driver who got a job with the city as a zookeeper, and when I was a kid he would take us backstage to feed the orangutans yogurt and to race between the tiger cages as the big cats loped along, tracking the delicious little kid racing next to them in his baseball jersey. Denny was around to see the industry become much more sophisticated, with more and more PhDs and master’s degrees coming on board to take his place. He witnessed zoos and aquariums become less and less about entertainment and more and more about education and science. “Education is important, but I have to be honest with you,” he says, “zoos have always been just as much about entertainment.”

Although Willis is clearly somebody with a great amount of affection for and knowledge about animals, he’s also a frustrated showman. Since the problems in 2006, the zoo has been forced to scale back its dolphin shows, referring to them as “dolphin training presentations.” The animals he’s left with are older and less athletic, and he says his training staff is frustrated that it has been unable to show off what these animals can really do.

As best it can, the zoo tries to mirror the way dolphins operate in the wild—in their dotage or not, Willis refers to his dolphins as “ambassadors for their species.” But the zoo’s main strategy for maintaining the dolphins’ social verisimilitude with the natural world seems to be to plan for small groups of female dolphins alongside lone males. “Young males get kicked out of the family group so they won’t breed with their mothers and sisters,” Willis says. “That’s how we manage dolphins [in the aquarium], too.”

So he’s looking forward to the upcoming Discovery Bay renovations and the opportunity to swap out Semo for some younger females, allowing the zoo to establish a new “matra-line,” a group of dolphins established around a line of related females. But he also appreciates this opportunity for changeover as a teachable moment. Before I leave, he tries one more pop quiz on me. “Do you know what percentage of our animals die?”

“I’m not sure,” I respond.

“All of them,” he says.

He got me.

“We teach you that animals are cool,” he says. “It’s great if you love our dolphins, if you come here because you like to see Ayla, the dolphin who isn’t straight, because she’s a fighter. But she’s going to die. And your mother is going to die. And you’re going to die. And that’s hard for little kids. It’s hard for everyone. I have a 14-year-old beagle, and it’s hard for me. But it’s part of life. And so when we say we’ve had six dolphins die in six years, I can say, ‘Yes, and all of them will die someday.’” He raises his eyebrows at me. “So the question isn’t, ‘Is that too many deaths?’ The question is, ‘Are you responsibly caring for those animals?’”

NATURAL INSTINCTS

Willis’s boss, Lee Ehmke, is one of the most successful zoo directors in the country, admired equally in our state capitol (former governor Tim Pawlenty was a big fan—Apple Valley is near his home in Eagan) and throughout the international zoo industry. He’s universally credited for turning around a state institution with 275 state employees and a $22 million a year budget, primarily by increasing attendance with a couple of boffo new exhibits, but also by operating efficiently and offsetting his costs with private donations (the zoo’s biggest friend is the current governor’s cousin, Ned Dayton, who recently made a $3 million gift).

As CEO of the zoo, Ehmke has a unique skill set, a combination of exhibit architect, fundraiser, and lobbyist. Most of all, he has a firm grasp on his responsibility to make the emotional connection between his customers and the animals in his care: “Most of our research shows that it’s mom who makes the call whether to go to the zoo or not,” he explains. He’s spent an entire career ensuring that going to the zoo remains among mom’s relevant options.

“I think the idea of having people actually experience the geology, the physical nature of the place the animals need to live in, there’s an implicit message there that takes it beyond putting it in a box and looking at it.”
— Lee Ehmke, Minnesota Zoo

After all, he understands how powerful the zoo’s draw is—Ehmke’s first childhood memory is of the black rhino at the Fresno Zoo, an experience that’s had a profound impact on his professional life. He began his career offering freelance legal services to organizations, including the Sierra Club. But he decided he wanted to take a more proactive approach to environmental issues, so he returned to his alma mater, UC Berkeley, for a three-year master’s degree in landscape architecture with a specialization in habitat restoration in zoos and nature.

“Instead of stopping bad things from happening, I was interested in creating something good,” he says. While still at Berkeley, he reached out to the most famous zoo in the world, the Bronx Zoo in New York, which was at the vanguard of a transition in how zoos interact with zoogoers. He was at the Bronx Zoo during a key time in the evolution of an institution—the public zoo—that has been around in some form since the Egyptians.

“It’s been an evolutionary process, but I think there was sort of a punctuated evolution that started in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” he says. “The idea of creating a naturalistic space for the animals but also bringing the visitor as much as possible into that space as well—instead of the diorama concept where you’re on the outside looking at an exhibit.”

Ehmke’s Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo is still regarded as “the gold standard of zoo exhibits.” One of his first major exhibits at the Minnesota Zoo, Russia’s Grizzly Coast, follows that legacy of landscape immersion. “I think the idea of having people actually experience the geology, the physical nature of the place the animals need to live in, there’s an implicit message there that takes it beyond putting it in a box and looking at it.” By expanding exhibits to connect to the ecology in which that animal lives, Ehmke believes the visitor learns the importance of conservation.

While this new conservation philosophy is important to Ehmke, he also understands that you need the superstar animals to get people through the door, the animals known in the zoo industry as “charismatic megavertebrates.” And there is no more popular charismatic megavertebrate at the Minnesota Zoo than the bottlenose dolphins.

BIG BRAINS


The dolphin brain is one of the largest animal brains in terms of size relative to body mass.  According to Emory University dolphin and whale neurologist Lori Marino, cetacean (dolphin and whale) brains started expanding 35 million years ago, reaching present-day size 15 million years ago, while human brains started expanding rapidly, overtaking all other animals, only in the last million years. “Dolphins have had their big brains a lot longer than we have,” she says.

Kevin Willis, biological director at the Minnesota Zoo, argues that size isn’t everything and points out that glial cells insulate their brains. “The dolphin’s brain has to function in cold water,” he says. “So the bulk of the total size is for insulation—the size of their brains isn’t just for brightness.”

But that view of glial cells is changing. “We now know that glial cells modify neural transmission, therefore playing an integral role in brain processes not just as ‘supporting actors’ but as real players,” Willis notes.

Although the dolphin brain is organized differently than the human brain, there are similarities: We both have cortexes, for instance. Marino says the recent discovery of “spindle cells” in dolphin brains—long, spindly structures involved in self-awareness, social cognition, and communication, the same mysterious structures found in human brains—is yet more evidence that the two species might be more like-minded than we ever thought.

These dolphins live in what is, at one million gallons, a mid-sized dolphinarium relative to facilities around the world. I ask Ehmke what he would do if he had an unlimited budget—far beyond the $8 million the zoo requested this year from the state to repair its pool liner (the zoo received $4 million)—to change the dolphin exhibit. He brainstorms effortlessly. “A lagoon the size of our central lake,” he muses. “Wouldn’t that be marvelous to do? With rocky substrate bottoms, and seaweed, and the whole picture of a coastal environment.”

Then he snaps back to reality. “Again, there are limitations on what’s possible financially. And [Discovery Bay opened in 1997] when the zoo needed to do a new home for the dolphins. That was the primary [consideration], as opposed to the message that some of our other exhibits have.”

Behind a lawyer’s pursed lips he makes an admission. “In my ideal world, every exhibit at the zoo would have the kind of immersion quality that I talked about, and that connection to the environment. I think the most important message that we need to be giving is that these animals need this environment to survive. It’s not as long as we’re taking care of them there’s always going to be bears and there’s always going to be dolphins. It’s more, unless you have an ocean or a forest that’s clean and safe these animals won’t be here in the future. Ideally, I would like every exhibit at our zoo to have that message implicit to it. Right now, honestly, Discovery Bay doesn’t.”

Ehmke goes on to point out that his concern is purely aesthetic. “It’s not from any concern about animal welfare or animal management,” he says. “Neither is that meant to say a lot of education and empathy and other things aren’t instilled by that exhibit, but [the education and empathy is] much more about the dolphins themselves and their charismatic nature rather than a connection between the habitat and the animals.”

IMPOSSIBLE QUESTION

This isn’t a murder mystery. Even if there is dolphin-on-dolphin crime in this story, it’s not really a whodunit: The zoo has complied with every USDA requirement for investigation into cause. And these are animals, not people—in the definition of the legal system, in fact, they’re property. But even while we define the terms, and despite the fact that they’re under our care and all it entails—birth control, surgery and medication, the diversions of cuisine and structured play—the laws of nature are still on display: These animals have sex with each other and kill each other, sometimes for what seems to be simple pleasure. The animals in a zoo are living their lives on display for our pleasure, and as our scientific understanding of these same animals becomes more sophisticated, Willis’s question—“Are we responsibly caring for these animals?”—becomes more difficult to answer. It just might be impossible to answer.

Senior writer Steve Marsh’s work also can be found in Delta Air Lines’ Sky and at GQ.com and nymag.com.


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