Dolphin death to spur change

National Aquarium plans breeding program overhaul

No decisions finalized

Artificial insemination, relocating males possible

August 20, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The National Aquarium announced yesterday that it will make major changes in its dolphin breeding program - a month after an ailing 4-month- old dolphin died the day she was roughed up by two adult dolphins.

The aquarium is considering shipping adult male dolphins to other facilities, abandoning the importation of adult males for breeding and switching instead to artificial insemination for its next generation of calves.

Aquarium officials said that none of the options is final, but that all are likely candidates. "I'm re-evaluating the whole dolphin breeding program," said Dr. Joseph R. Geraci, aquarium senior director of biological programs. "We'd like to change the way we do business."

Geraci said exactly which dolphins will be relocated has yet to be decided. "It's probably going to be males. It could be all three, or some of the three, but we really don't know yet," he said.

Artificial insemination - a relatively new breeding technique for dolphins - also will be "considered a priority," he said.

The proposals come after Bridgit, a 4-month-old calf, died July 28, a few hours after she was roughed up by two other dolphins while her mother was performing for an audience in a connecting tank.

Two dolphins knocked Bridgit about and pinned her underwater for a time. This can be dangerous for dolphins, which are mammals and must surface periodically to breathe. Bridgit was found floating soon after the incident and staff members were unable to revive her.

Geraci said yesterday that a necropsy - an animal autopsy - performed on Bridgit showed that she died of pneumonia, but that being bullied contributed to her death.

"There was roughhousing, and it is my determination that the roughhousing contributed to the weakness of the animal and made the animal's condition worse," Geraci said.

The National Aquarium has nine dolphins. They include three juveniles (Spirit, Maya and Raven, born in 2001); three breeding females (Nani, 32, Shiloh, 22, and Chesapeake, 12); and three males (Shadow, 13, Cobie, 13, and Bob, 23). Bob is scheduled to return to Disney's Living Seas program in Florida, which lent him to the aquarium for breeding, but there is no fixed departure date.

Geraci said it's unclear which dolphins went after Bridgit; adult males are generally more aggressive, but it could have been the juveniles.

He said his focus is on creating the best breeding environment possible - not on blaming individual dolphins.

"It's our responsibility to make sure this doesn't happen, and whatever mix of animals was involved in this, things have to be changed because it's just unacceptable," he said.

The death was the second in the aquarium's dolphin population this year. A 10-day-old male died of bacterial meningitis April 27.

Bridgit's death shocked and disappointed aquarium staff, who had successfully watched over the breeding of three calves born in 2001.

Although visitors rarely see evidence of it, infections and aggression are common hazards for marine mammals, both in the wild and in captivity, experts say. Detecting illnesses can be difficult, because wild animals tend to mask their symptoms to avoid attracting predators.

But Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Humane Society of the United States, said Bridgit's mother, Chesapeake, should have been allowed to concentrate on protecting her calf to avoid the attack. She said adult males are a threat to young calves and should be separated from them at all times.

Aquarium officials say part of the problem was that Chesapeake had been inattentive. "It's not infrequent when a calf will leave its mother and then come back," Geraci said. "But what's worrisome about the situation is [that] the mother herself was not a good mother. She was rather detached; she didn't seem to develop the tight or protective bonds with her calf you usually see."

Geraci said that until the spring, the dolphin breeding program had been successful. "We've had three very successful births here, and we had the males in the pool then and it worked out well at the time," he said. "It's not always the case that putting males in the pool is detrimental to the calf."

Baltimore's dolphin colony is a major attraction for the aquarium and the city. The aquarium draws more tourists to Baltimore than any attraction except professional baseball. Aquarium officials say their dolphin shows - six daily during the summer - are one of the biggest draws.

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