The gentle bottlenose dolphin that was the mother of the first dolphin calf to be born at the National Aquarium in Baltimore in 1992 died over the weekend after doctors and technicians worked for about a year to nurse her through an array of illnesses. Aquarium officials estimated that the dolphin, named Shiloh, was 31 years old.
"It's an incredibly difficult time" for members of the aquarium staff who care for the dolphins, said Brent Whitaker, deputy director of biological programs at the aquarium. "These animals become their families. … Anybody who has an animal or a pet knows what we're talking about."
He said Shiloh, who measured 9 feet long and about 400 pounds, was not responding to treatments and had stopped eating before doctors made the decision to have her euthanized. She died in the medical pool late Sunday morning surrounded by three doctors, two veterinary technicians and eight trainers.
Whitaker said doctors who specialize in comparative medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are conducting an autopsy.
He said tests conducted over the past few months showed that Shiloh — one of the first six dolphins to be displayed in the new Marine Mammal Pavilion when it opened in 1990 — was suffering from an infection and iron storage disease. He said "next to nothing" is known about iron storage disease in dolphins, but it appeared that Shiloh was accumulating excessive amounts of iron in her liver, and treatments had begun about a year ago.
She was one of the aquarium's nine dolphins, ranging in age from 2 to 38 years. Whitaker and Sue Hunter, director of animal programs, said life expectancy for a bottlenose dolphin is about 25 years.
Shiloh was captured in the Gulf of Mexico in 1981 and was estimated to be 2 or 3 years old at the time, said Whitaker. The dolphin was captured in the wild, a practice condemned by animal rights groups. Whitaker said the aquarium's policy has since changed, and "we don't condone capture of bottlenose dolphins for display."
Hunter described Shiloh as a "gentle" and "calm" dolphin who was attentive to the other dolphins and helped to raise the calves born at the aquarium, showing "very motherly behavior and instincts."
In March 1992, Shiloh gave birth to Chesapeake, the first dolphin to be born at the aquarium.