Monday, January 23, 2006

Little dolphin dies in zoo

Harley, the Minnesota Zoo's newest dolphin, died Saturday afternoon after jumping out of his pool and fracturing his head on the concrete deck.

The dolphin calf, which had just turned 7 months of age, apparently panicked in swimming between two back pools at the zoo that have been his home since birth.

Harley — whose name was picked from 10,000 entries last summer in a zoo-sponsored naming contest — had started training Wednesday to go between the east and west back pools through a channel, said Kevin Willis, director of biological programs at the zoo in Apple Valley.

"Things had been going well," Willis said. "He was a real champ."

But on Saturday about 2:45 p.m., the calf had gone from the east "maternity" pool to the west pool with his mother, Rio. Rio returned to the east pool, and as Harley swam toward the channel, he leapt out of the water and landed on the deck.

"We don't know why he did that. He must have panicked," Willis said.

Although he was "pretty scraped up," Harley seemed to be fine, and trainers quickly returned him to the water, Willis said. After a while, Harley stopped coming up for air. Divers were sent in to aid him, but to no avail.

Zoo officials determined Harley had a skull fracture and his lungs were full of blood. His body was taken to the University of Minnesota to be examined.

"There was nothing we could have done," Willis said.

Although Harley was never on display for zoo visitors, he could be seen 24 hours a day on the zoo's webcam. He was born June 21 to Rio, a 33-year-old dolphin who has long been a fixture at the Minnesota Zoo. Rio has had three other offspring — a 3-year-old female named Spree who is at the Minnesota Zoo, and two others who are now housed in other cities.

Traveling between pools is a critical lesson for dolphins at the zoo, and adult dolphins practice this procedure every day. Some zoos start training calves to do this at 2 weeks, but the Minnesota Zoo waits until they are comfortable with their surroundings, said Kelly Lessard, a zoo spokeswoman. The practice allows zoo staff to move animals around and separate them, if need be. Not until Harley had mastered this behavior would he have been sent into the exhibit pool, according to zoo officials.

Although it is very unusual for dolphins to jump out of the pool, this was not the first time Harley had landed on the deck, Willis said. Shortly after he was born, his mother inadvertently flipped him out of the pool as she was passing her placenta, he said.

Harley was a "healthy and strong" 120-pound, 5½-foot-long calf who recently had started eating fish and learning some show behaviors, Willis said. His favorite toys were a plastic bat and water from a hose, and he spent his days swimming with his mother and sister. There are three other dolphins at the zoo.

"The other dolphins seem to be doing well," Willis said. "Of course, we can't talk to them, but they seem to be eating and breathing normally."

The staff was not doing so well, however, he said. Zoo staffers had pulled all-night shifts for months to make sure nothing went wrong during Harley's birth and had grown attached to him.

"This was very hard day for us," Willis said.

Rio's babies

Shadow: Male, born in 1992. Now lives at National Aquarium in Baltimore.

DJ, short for De Janeiro: Male, born in 1996. Now lives at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo.

Spree: Female, born in 2002. Lives at Minnesota Zoo.

Harley: Male, born in June. Died Saturday at Minnesota Zoo.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"