If you were around in the mid-1960s, it's possible your only encounter with a dolphin was a TV show. Flipper possessed the uncanny ability to know when the Rick's boys, Bud and Sandy, were in trouble. Flipper alerted their father by making his signature noises.
In reality, dolphins are not like Flipper; they are wild creatures. That's the message that the zoo is trying to get across through its dolphin encounter program.
Grant Spickelmier, who heads the zoo's education program, says humans tend to think of dolphins as the jovial Flipper because they appear as if they're always grinning.
"They actually have a built-in smile in their skull. And we show them a dolphin skull and they can actually see that smile right in the bone. As humans we're conditioned to see a smile and assume that whatever is smiling is happy. That's our perception of that. That's not really what the dolphin is communicating," says Spickelmier.
For $125, participants spend about three hours near and at the dolphin tank. They learn that dolphins don't have vocal chords. They have one passageway that goes from their mouths to their stomachs, and another that goes from their lungs to their blowhole. The two never intersect. So even though their mouths may be open, they make all of their sounds by forcing air through their blowholes.
In addition to some classroom time, participants go behind the scenes at the dolphin tank. Around the top of the tank are walkways where trainers feed the dolphins. The walkways contain some shallow areas that are about one foot deep, where the dolphins swim up. Guests are allowed to feed them, rub their backs, and play catch with a ball.
The zoo's oldest dolphin, Semo, lies placidly while trainer Jenny Beem points out his ears.
"It's very tiny. Directly behind the eye, right in that little dimple, that is his ear right there. It's a tiny little pinhole," Beem says.
Beem loves explaining those kinds of small details that she can't explain to a big crowd.
"To me, I just think they're so amazing," she says. "I've been here forever and I still think they're so cool. And so to be able to show that to people and why they are, it's really nice, especially such small groups like this."
The zoo limits the encounter to five people at a time, and children who are at least 10 years old.
Getting up close with the dolphins is up to the dolphins. If they're not interested in strangers being near, they're not forced to interact.
While some encounter programs allow participants to swim with the dolphins, the zoo's program does not. That's for the safety of the animals and the humans.
Diane Fusco heads the marine mammal program at the Minnesota Zoo. She says dolphins can be aggressive, in and out of captivity. People are surprised when they see Semo's body full of black scars. Fusco says most people think he tangled with an outboard motor propeller or a shark. In truth, he tangled with another dolphin.
"If they get a good look at our animals, they see what we call tooth rake marks, and that's as a direct result of fighting with one another. They are social animals. Sometimes, especially the males will compete for dominance. So sometimes they have disagreements," says Fusco.
Carol Kleve of Albany, Minnesota says her encounter lived up to her expectations. Kleve is a dolphin aficionado who says she's filled every room in her house with figurines. Her ankle sports a dolphin tattoo.
"To me they're just so sleek and graceful and smart. I don't know that I'll ever get to Florida to swim with them or anything, so I figured this was one way of getting up close to them," Kleve says.
Zoo officials hope that the dolphin encounter will engender some connection between them and humans. They're not on the endangered species list, but some scientists have found that dolphins' behavior is changing. As more people feed them from piers and boats, dolphins look to humans for food rather than catching it themselves.