Stingrays may replace dolphins at Minnesota Zoo

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 end its dolphin program this fall.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Schools of fish and stingrays will likely replace dolphins at the Minnesota Zoo, at least in the short term.

The zoo decided this spring it would no longer house dolphins after one died, leaving only two in the collection. The two pool-mates, Semo and Allie, will be relocated in the fall so the zoo can begin needed renovations to the popular Discovery Bay exhibit.

Fish, stingrays, and spotted-eagle rays may not be as popular as the dolphins, but Zoo Director Lee Ehmke says he hopes the public will give the refashioned exhibit a chance when it re-opens.

"Fish can be fantastic and beautiful, especially when they're exhibited well, and exhibited in schools," he said. "Some of the rays we're considering live in large groups. They move through the water beautifully and gracefully. No, they're not dolphins, but they're fantastic representatives of the aquatic environment, which is the reason we have Discovery Bay."

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The zoo is still figuring out how far $4 million in state bonding money will go toward renovating the exhibit. That's how much money the Legislature gave the zoo in response to its original request of $7 million.

Ehmke said he hopes there's enough money to make the most critical repairs and introduce new kinds of fish and stingrays. He said at some point, the public might have a chance to swim or wade in the tank.

"But all of those things are going to require investments and funds that are not part of what's available to the zoo. So we'll have to look at that further down the road, but that's something we'd like to consider."

Another long-term solution would involve introducing new animal species to the exhibit, but Ehmke said that would also require additional funding. Officials have considered acquring California sea lions, but creating that kind of exhibit could cost millions more, and those animals could be as difficult to obtain as dolphins.

Some lawmakers have criticized the zoo for the way it handled its bonding request. The zoo publicly announced it was getting rid of the dolphins only after it secured the state money.