May 14: Minnesota Zoo pulls plug on dolphin exhibit

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2012 - 5:48 AM

Lawmakers included $4M in bonding bill to redo the Minnesota Zoo's dolphin tanks.

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Minnesota Zoo's bottlenose dolphin, Allie and her three month old female calf swam in the main exhibit pool at Dolphin Lagoon for the first time Tuesday. The calf is not named yet and the zoo is taking suggestions at www.mnzoo.org/events/Events_dolphinNaming.asp

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The endearing, entertaining dolphins that have been a star attraction for the Minnesota Zoo will be leaving in the fall and not coming back.

That news, announced by the zoo on Monday, disappointed patrons and surprised a key legislator, who said lawmakers had been misled in putting $4 million into the state's $496 million bonding bill to refurbish the zoo's dolphin pools.

"People go there with their kids because of the dolphins," said House Capital Investment Committee Chairman Larry Howes, R-Walker.

"We gave them the money to repair those tanks, and they are not going to keep the dolphins? I think in some way that could be looked at as very, very deceiving," Howes said.

The Apple Valley zoo had intended to move its two dolphins, the 46-year-old male Semo and the 24-year-old female Allie, to other locations while the tanks in the 15-year-old Discovery Bay are resealed to correct saltwater damage. Semo is to be retired and Allie introduced to a new social group. Until recently, the zoo planned to bring in a new pod of dolphins once the repairs were finished.

But zoo Director Lee Ehmke said on Monday that cost and lack of availability had put new dolphins out of the zoo's reach. Instead, the zoo will study what other species -- sea lions? seals? -- might take the dolphins' place.

Zoo officials had met several weeks ago with legislators and senior members of the governor's staff to reveal that the dolphin exhibit would have to close, Ehmke said. "We believed that we had disclosed" the likelihood that the dolphins would not be returning. Unfortunately that information did not reach the governor, Ehmke said. "It was not our intent to do a bait and switch."

The zoo was "looking actively to see if there were social groups of dolphins available to be brought back to the zoo and the answer was no," Ehmke said. "Having an entire new group of animals -- which is what we would need -- sourced from another institution was not possible."

The only institution in recent years able to open a new dolphin exhibit did it by building a new facility for $120 million and purchasing a dolphinarium, including the dolphins, from another location at a cost of many millions of dollars, Ehmke said.

He added that there have been no bottlenose dolphins captured from the wild and brought to the United States for more than 20 years.

Ehmke acknowledged that losing dolphins, which have been displayed at the zoo since 1978, will disappoint visitors. "People love dolphins," he said. "It has consistently been one of the favorite animals. They have a lot of charisma, and people find them fascinating and love them, as do we."

Gov. Mark Dayton said he had not known before he signed the bonding bill that the dolphins would leave. His press secretary said he will likely look into whether the bonds can be used for other zoo needs.

Howes, however, said he will urge the governor and the Office of Management and Budget not to issue the $4 million in bonds. It's too late to amend the bonding bill, but the bonds do not have to be sold, Howes said.

"We thought we were going to repair those tanks and keep the dolphins. So we were literally misled and I am not happy about that," Howes said. "We've got to save the dolphins. Maybe we have to go out there and picket."

Visitors saddened

Joe and Shauntane Drabant of Eagan, who visit the zoo every couple of weeks, said they hope the zoo will reconsider. "At least think again," said Joe Drabant at the zoo on Monday. "They're such beautiful animals."

Zoo visitors Kris Klein, 32, and Leah Jones, 26, of Stacy, Minn., were surprised and disappointed to hear the news.

Jones was on her first visit to the zoo and said they'd seen a dolphin do a "fly-by" while they were inside. Klein said he'd seen the dolphin show in the past and enjoyed it.

"I don't know why they would close that," he said.

He said the show is usually packed and is a strong draw for younger zoo visitors.

"The kids like to sit in the front row because that's the splash area," he said.

The zoo plans to use the money provided in the bonding bill to make improvements as planned in the aquatic display building, Ehmke said.

Sea lions, seals and an aquarium for fish are among the possible replacements for the dolphins, he said, adding "I don't want to say anything that would be taken as 'This is our plan.'"

The zoo's baby dolphin, Taijah, died in February; she was the offspring of Semo and Allie. It was the sixth dolphin death at the zoo since 2006, including one calf that was stillborn.

Laurie Blake 952-746-3287 Staff writers Paul Walsh and William C. Crum contributed to this story.

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