Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dolphins in… Chicago?

I know it seems this way, but I don’t just love sharks. I cherish all creatures that live in water – after all it all started for me in the lakes and streams of Wisconsin with turtles, salamanders, frogs and blue gills.

I have run into some pretty strange animals and fish in some pretty strange places. But, who would have guessed I would meet a pod of Dolphins in Chicago of all places?

I have always loved dolphins. And this month on the Underwater Channel, I got another good dose of these charismatic mammals. After swimming with the Indian Ocean version of Common Bottlenose dolphins in Aliwal, I was able to reconnect with some friends in the states to examine a real controversy: marine animals in captivity.

It was a bi-coastal episode, as I headed to Brookfield Zoo, one of the nation’s oldest Oceanariums to learn more about their dolphins and their research program. Then, I headed to Sarasota to meet with Dr. Randall Wells, who is leading the world’s longest dolphin research program – now in its 38th year.

I grew up in Chicago, coming to Brookfield Zoo, one of the nation’s largest and oldest zoos. And, while I loved all the animals big and small, the dolphins were my favorite. (Please don’t tell the sharks.)

But, I have always been torn on animals in captivity – especially large marine apex predators like dolphins, whales, turtles, sharks, and rays. I love seeing them in their own environment and wish they could all be free in the oceans. Unfortunately, people only care about what they see and experience – and most people do not see what dwells within our seas. Out of site out of mind. So, for the educational and awareness purposes, I support their captivity as long as it is responsible, the animals are well cared for and not at risk, and it is for purpose.

Having certain animals in captivity as long as they can remain healthy (I am in strong opposition to keeping animals like whale sharks or white sharks) provides the public with the ability to experience the sea. Having dolphins in places like Brookfield allows people who would not otherwise have an opportunity to do so, to learn more about these incredible creatures, gain an appreciation for them, and hopefully, make a few more people want to do something to ensure these amazing animals survive.

Sadly, while dolphins were protected in 1972 by the marine mammal laws here in the US, and throughout the world, they are still threatened. Many die each year as unintentional bycatch, from habitat destruction, from pollution, from interaction with fisherman and fishing gear, and also from human interactions.

2 million people visit these dolphins each year. They are definitely the ambassadors for ocean conservation here at the zoo, and worldwide.

At the zoo, I caught up with the lead curator of the dolphin exhibit as well as my friend Dr. Stuart Strahl, the CEO of the zoo. We had long discussions about the approach to captivity as well as the critical role they play in research as well, furthering my knowledge on the subject. And, I got a behind the scenes tour which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Here are a few myths that were quickly shattered:

Zoos and aquariums capture dolphins from the wild. FALSE. All of the dolphins at Brookfield have been raised in captivity. In fact, they are leading an 8 institution consortium managing the breeding to ensure all dolphins in captivity are bred in captivity – while maintaining strong genetic histories.

There is no benefit to having dolphins in captivity. FALSE. The studies and work undertaken by trainers and researchers in zoos and aquariums and by scientists in the wild feed one another can be tied directly to the conservation of wild marine mammals. The dolphins at Brookfield Zoo serve as a baseline, controlled population that the dolphins in the wild can be compared against.

Dolphin shows are just circus acts. FALSE. The responsible zoos and aquariums teach dolphins behaviors and actions to help with their care – and keep them busy. Dolphins love to learn and desire constant stimulation. And, Brookfield does not support the rogue efforts to capture dolphins to allow the public to swim with them.

After visiting Brookfield, I headed down to Sarasota and Mote to meet with Dr. Randall Wells and learn more about the common bottlenose dolphin and the last few years of his research.

You see, my attachment to dolphins grew even stronger when, a few years ago, I participated in a study with Dr. Randall Wells in the field on the longest running dolphin research study in history. Going on its 38th year, the program has studied four generation of dolphins in Sarasota Bay. As part of Dr. Wells' team, I assisted in the collection of samples from wild dolphins. It was amazing to see Dr. Wells team in action. We literally captured wild dolphins and then quickly and with very little impact were able to perform the necessary tests

A collaborative effort between the Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo) and Mote Marine Laboratory, the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program allows Dr. Wells and his staff – including volunteer interns to study the biology, behavior, health, physiology, and ecology of bottlenose dolphins, as well as human impacts on them.

And it is no small task. They have documented the movements of more than 120 dolphins in a 40-square-mile area of Sarasota Bay. They have discovered the social organization of dolphin groups based on sex, age, and reproductive condition and have been able to establish family trees through observations and blood analysis of these dolphins.

Field research in Sarasota Bay, Florida, and other locations, has offered a substantial body of information to those who protect dolphins in the wild and care for them in zoos and aquariums.

The common bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay have adapted to sharing their waters with other boaters, fisherman and jet skiers. It is amazing to see them appear in the Bay as you are coming and going, just enjoying the beautiful water – or trying to get a free meal.

I love seeing the dolphins when I am Florida and know that their presence here in Sarasota Bay is leading to better knowledge, understanding and conservation of dolphins throughout the world – in large part due to Dr. Wells and the Brookfield Zoological Society. And that the dolphins in captivity in Chicago are playing a very critical role in that as well.

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