Dolphins on display at Minnesota Zoo for first time in a decade

Dolphins can be seen at the zoo for the next seven months while their home habitat in Illinois is being renovated.

Employees of the Minnesota Zoo play with dolphins
Employees of the Minnesota Zoo play with bottlenose dolphins in Apple Valley, Minn. on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

For about seven months, Minnesota Zoo will be home to seven bottlenose dolphins while their Brookfield Zoo habitat undergoes renovations. They could be here longer depending on how long the renovation projects take to finish.

It is the first time the public will get to see dolphins at Minnesota Zoo since it moved its dolphins to larger groups at other organizations in 2012. Since then, Discovery Bay has housed Hawaiian monk seals instead. Until the dolphins’ arrival last month, Discovery Bay’s only recent resident had been Ola the Hawaiian monk seal.

An employee of the Minnesota Zoo plays with dolphins
An employee of the Brookfield Zoo plays with dolphins in Apple Valley, Minn., on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“From watching her behavior, she's spending a lot of time watching the dolphins. And it can be a form of enrichment. She's got new things to be looking at and hearing,” said Rita Stacey, the vice president of Animal Programs at Brookfield Zoo.

The plan is to rotate the two species so that “everybody gets a little piece of being able to stretch the flippers out in the large habitat,” she said. 

While Ola gets a free TV show, the dolphins are entering phase two of their acclimation at the Minnesota Zoo. The dolphins are currently acclimated to the back pools. 

“Now it's time to introduce them to the main pool habitat where they're gonna get to see Minnesota Zoo guests, and guests will get to see them. This next phase will probably take another couple of weeks for the dolphins to get comfortable,” Stacey said. 

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“All dolphins will acclimate at different rates. I can tell you that our oldest animal Lucky, he’s a world traveler. He’s been to many zoos and aquariums over the course of his lifetime. So when he came into this environment, he was with the rest of the group and he acclimated really, really quickly. So his acclimation, to me, is pretty much complete.” Lucky is 48.

A dolphin swims to the big pool
A bottlenose dolphin from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago swims to the big pool at Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn. on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

On the other hand, one might assume a dolphin would feel most comfortable where they were born. Spree was born at Minnesota Zoo but surprisingly she is “the one that’s been the shyest right now, and has not spent a lot of time out here in the main habitat just yet,” Stacey said. “I imagine that will change hopefully pretty quickly.”

However long it may take, the caretakers will “work with each individual dolphin with what they’re comfortable with.”

“Our most important thing is looking at how the group gets along socially and behaviorally. We are all specialists in observing behavior. And so it's important for the team to spend time watching the animals and seeing and observing their behavior. And from those signs that we get, we know whether they're acclimating well, based maybe on their rate of how they swim, how they're exploring their environment. That's our job: to make sure that we are observing their behavior, and then we adjust how we work with them based on what the dolphins are telling us through their behavior,” Stacey said.

Employees of the Minnesota Zoo feed dolphins
Employees of the Brookfield Zoo feed dolphins in Apple Valley, Minn., on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

While the dolphins are in Minnesota, their habitat in Illinois is getting a new roof, a false-bottom lifting platform that makes it easier to care for the animals, and a climate-controlled HVAC system. 

The two zoos have a history of working together, and it may benefit the dolphins.

“Brookfield Zoo and Minnesota Zoo have a long history of collaboration with bottlenose dolphins. And we have a long partnership of collaboration together. When I knew that we were getting to a point where we were going to need to move the dolphins for this renovation my first call was to my colleagues up here at the Minnesota Zoo. This is where we relocated the last time we had a renovation back in 2009, and I knew it was still here. All of the females that we have at Brookfield Zoo lived here at the Minnesota Zoo. So when you're looking to move dolphins to another location, it's really helpful when they go to a place where they've known before.”

Employees of the Minnesota Zoo play with dolphins
Employees of the Brookfield Zoo play with bottlenose dolphins from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago at Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn. on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

She hopes that “when the dolphins return to Brookfield Zoo, the acclimation will be a lot faster because I think it’s all fresh in their memory,” Stacey said.

“We do know that dolphins do have a longer-term memory because of previous research that we’ve actually participated in where dolphins have recognized the whistles of other dolphins that they had been with years prior. The way they reacted to that whistle was as if they recognized that animal. I believe dolphins have a memory of about 25 years.”

The temporary housing assignment gives Minnesotans “a chance to see animals that you may never get a chance to in your lifetime,” animals “that sometimes are out of sight, out of mind.” 

“If you don't become educated at a zoo or an aquarium about marine mammals, you might never see them in your whole life. It's important for us as stewards of our land and the environment, to take good care of our environment, not only for all the humans that live here, but all the terrestrial animals, and the marine animals that live in the ocean,” Stacey said.

Two dolphins swim to the big pool
Two bottlenose dolphins from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago swim at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn. on Friday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News