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


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.”