Legislators want review as Minn. Zoo ends dolphin exhibit

Minnesota Zoo dolphins
Minnesota Zoo dolphin trainer Michaela Kluever works with Allie, one of two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the zoo, during an Olympics-themed training session Monday, June 18, 2012, designed to demonstrate dolphins' athleticism to visitors.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Days after the Legislature approved $4 million for the Minnesota Zoo — for what many legislators thought would be used to refurbish the dolphin tanks there — the zoo announced an end to the popular exhibit.

But zoo officials were thinking about moving the dolphins several months before they told the public, or the Legislature, according to documents obtained by MPR News.

That has Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk calling for a public hearing on whether money going to the Minnesota Zoo will be used appropriately.

"We need some assurance," said Bakk, DFL-Cook. "If it's not going to be dolphins, what's it going to be?"

Documents: Zoo officials discuss dolphin exhibit
Dolphin deaths
Facilities master plan
Bonding bill request
Zoo communications planning

The dolphin show is a popular attraction at the Minnesota Zoo, particularly at lunchtime, when hundreds of visitors pack into a stadium to see two dolphins perform.

The dolphins leap into the air, splash their tails and swim at breakneck speed around a glass tank. Before and after the show, children press their faces to the glass tanks in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the dolphins.

Zoo officials had hoped to renovate the tanks to continue the dolphin shows. But a shortage of animals, the deaths of six dolphins at the zoo since 2006 and zoo officials' inability to find other dolphins prompted them to announce in May that the dolphin exhibit would end in the fall. That decision surprised Gov. Mark Dayton and many state lawmakers who thought the $4 million allocated to the zoo in the capital investment bill would be used for dolphins.

"I think they've created themselves a mess that's going to take themselves a while to get out of, simply by not informing people," said state Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Minnesota Zoo dolphins
Minnesota Zoo dolphin trainer Robyn Sigmund signals to Semo, one of two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the zoo, during an Olympics-themed training session Monday, June 18, 2012, designed to demonstrate dolphins' athleticism to visitors.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

As chairman of the House Capital Investment Committee, Howes is responsible for overseeing the $500 million package of construction projects that Dayton signed into law last month. Howes, who voted for the zoo allocation, said he would have reconsidered his vote if he had known the dolphins were leaving the zoo for good.

"They should have told us," he said of zoo officials. "They should have made us more aware. It's going to be a good lesson as we go before. We're going to question everything that goes before these committees especially if it's another state agency we want to make sure we get them on record."

Howes said he visited the zoo twice in the past eight months to discuss their proposal and zoo officials never told him of their plans. Zoo officials also testified at two legislative committee hearings to discuss the need to refurbish the dolphin tanks.

But even as the zoo administrators publicly lobbied to fund the Discover Bay exhibit, they were privately planning for the zoo's future without the dolphins.

According to documents obtained through the state Data Practices Act, zoo officials started discussing the future of the dolphin exhibit in February — a full month before the House and Senate released their bonding bills. Minnesota Zoo Biological Programs Director Kevin Willis said those plans were preliminary until he returned from a national conference on April 16. He went there hoping to find new dolphins from other zoos but quickly realized none was available.

Minnesota Zoo dolphins
Semo, one of the Minnesota Zoo's Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, poses for spectators during a training session Monday, June 18, 2012 at the zoo in Apple Valley. The Minnesota Zoo announced that it will ends its dolphin program this fall.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"Dolphins were on the table until that meeting," Willis said. "I came back and I said, 'I failed.' I came back and said we cannot open this building with a collection of animals that would basically be worth the investment of reopening the building."

Minnesota Zoo CEO Lee Ehmke said he and other zoo lobbyists told staff members in the governor's office and Legislature that the dolphins might not return. He said they also told the legislators representing Apple Valley, home to the zoo.

But six key lawmakers said zoo officials did not inform them that the dolphin exhibit would be permanently closed. Two of them say zoo officials told them it was a possibility. Ehmke said they should have worked harder to inform key legislators about the decision.

"Clearly incomplete communication happened," he said. "I take the personal blame for that. The message did not get to all of the people it needed to in the end."

Ehmke said the zoo will use the state money to fix the tanks but hasn't decided what will replace the dolphins. He said the zoo may create an exhibit with sting rays or one with California sea lions. But the zoo's documents show creating a sea lion exhibit could cost millions more and those animals could be as difficult to obtain as dolphins.

Howes and Cook say they don't want to see the zoo spend the $4 million until they have a solid plan in place. Bakk also wants a committee hearing to discuss the future of the exhibit.

"If we don't know what it's going to be," Bakk said, "then we ought to be cautious about issuing those bonds and making infrastructure improvements that potentially we don't have any use for."

Zoo director Ehmke said the zoo won't spend the money until they have a plan in place for the exhibit. He also acknowledged zoo officials may have to repair something else in the coming years — their relationship with lawmakers who may view the zoo's budget and bonding bill requests with a more skeptical eye.

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