Minn. Zoo to close dolphin exhibit

Minnesota Zoo officials say a young dolphin named Taijah was put on medication after falling ill and seemed stable until late Monday, when she died.
Photo for MPR courtesy of the Minnesota Zoo

Visitors to the Minnesota Zoo only have a few months left to see the two dolphins there. The animals will be sent to other aquariums while the zoo's Discovery Bay building is under renovation, and they will not be coming back.

The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley has not had good luck with its dolphin exhibit. Six have died in as many years, including one and-a-half year-old Taijah, who spit up a blood clot last February. There were a variety of reasons for the deaths and no discernible pattern. Now Taija's parents, Allie and Semo, are the only two dolphins remaining.

The deaths did not factor into the decision to close the exhibit, said zoo director Lee Ehmke. But he does say two dolphins do not make a viable social group, and finding more bred in captivity is difficult.

"There are fewer and fewer institutions in the country that are exhibiting dolphins," Ehmke said. "And in discussions with our colleagues, it's really become clear that we don't have the opportunity right now to bring back a family group or other social group of dolphins."

The Discovery Bay building that houses the giant dolphin tank needs major repairs, Ehmke said. It's only 15 years old, but the inside of the tank has corroded from the salt water.

State lawmakers approved a bonding bill that includes $4 million for the repairs. And Gov. Mark Dayton said the zoo's decision to send Allie and Semo away — announced after he signed the bill on Friday — caught him off guard.

"I was not aware of that, and it's disappointing that they would not make us aware of it on a timely basis," Dayton said.

The news also surprised Republican Larry Howes, who chairs the House bonding committee. However, Howes said that at the time of negotiations, he understood the $4 million was for saving the building itself and not the animals inside.

"In my mind it was for asset preservation," Howes said. "Whatever they use it for, as long as they use it the best they can and don't blow it, that was fine with me."

Zoo director Ehmke said during the legislative session zoo officials told lawmakers that closing the dolphin exhibit was a possiblity. Ehmke says zoo staff are now looking for new homes for Allie, 28, and Semo, who at about 50 is likely the oldest dolphin in human care.

The animals will probably leave the Minnesota Zoo sometime this fall, Ehmke said. In the meantime, he said the zoo is working on a master plan that will include a new use for the Discovery Bay building once it is renovated.

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