Angie Leventis Lourgos
The trainer touches her fingertips to the smooth rounded forehead of a common bottlenose dolphin named Noelani, a hand cue for the marine mammal to “chuff” or forcefully exhale through her blowhole, a behaviour similar to a human cough.
After quickly catching some of the spray on a 3-inch glass slide, the trainer rewards Noelani with a treat — some herring or sardines from a silver bucket resting on the side of the dolphin habitat behind the scenes at the Brookfield Zoo.
The respiratory sample is one small piece of data in the largest international study on the welfare of captive dolphins and whales in history, led by the Brookfield Zoo and incorporating the work of 44 accredited aquariums and zoos in seven countries.
The researchers believe these animals are prospering, but say there’s little science on what conditions are optimal for dolphins and whales under professional care: What are the characteristics of the best habitat? How does the type and timing of animal training influence the behaviour of these marine mammals?
The project intends to fill that void by analysing every aspect of their lives, from swimming patterns to veterinary exams to videos of their behaviour, as well as gastric, blood, fecal and other physical samples. Some of these approaches are novel in examining positive indicators of behaviour and emotional states rather than just ensuring the animal isn’t showing signs of stress, said Lance Miller, vice president of conservation science and animal welfare research.
“When you think about animal care and welfare, there’s the art and the science to it,” he said. “I think 30 years ago it was more of an art form. You had a lot of people with a lot of great knowledge because they had worked with the animals for so long. What we do now is we don’t try to take away from that art, but we try to use science to kind of mesh the two.”
The study, which is expected to be complete in 2020, comes as zoos and aquariums face heightened scrutiny nationwide, with some animal rights activists questioning the ethics of keeping typically wild animals in captivity. And that scrutiny is heightened when tragedy strikes at a zoo.
In 2015, 54 stingrays in the Brookfield Zoo’s “Stingray Bay” exhibit died after a malfunction caused oxygen levels in the habitat to drop; soon after, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit seeking records to shed light on the incident, and that case is still pending.
In 2016, a 3-year-old slipped through a barrier into the Gorilla World exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in the fatal shooting of an endangered gorilla named Harambe; federal inspectors later concluded that the exhibit barrier wasn’t in compliance with standards. SeaWorld in 2016 agreed to stop breeding captive killer whales after coming under fire from animal welfare groups.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore announced in 2016 that its dolphins will be retired to a seaside sanctuary, the first of its kind in the nation, and the aquarium is now working to secure a site and train the dolphins for the transition.
“After careful consideration, the board and staff concluded that the best way forward is to create a protected, year-round seaside refuge for our colony of dolphins,” a spokeswoman for the National Aquarium said in an e-mail. “We believe that the relocation of our dolphins to a natural sanctuary setting will offer them an opportunity to thrive in an environment suited to their natural behaviours.”
The decision was praised by the Humane Society of the United States as well as PETA, which challenges the notion that these marine mammals can be happy and healthy in a state of captivity.
“Fundamentally, these dolphins should be in seaside sanctuaries where they have the space to roam,” said Delcianna Winders, PETA’s vice president and deputy general counsel. “The concern with dolphins would be more that their complex needs can’t be met in a captive situation when they need so much space.”
Yet Brookfield Zoo staff say aquariums and zoos play a critical role in helping animals in the wild through research, education and conservation efforts, while maintaining high levels of care.
“A lot of the animal rights activists, they base a lot of their thoughts on their feelings, and throwing and projecting our human emotions onto the animals,” said Rita Stacey, curator of marine mammals. “By going through a study such as this, we’re really putting the science behind how the animals thrive in our care.”
Noelani dives under water, turns and presents her tail, from where the trainer will draw a blood sample once a month. The seven common bottlenose dolphins at the Brookfield Zoo know the routine and are trained to take part in data collection. Each time they perform a requested behaviour, they’re rewarded with clapping, body rubs, a favourite toy, a cube of flavourless gelatin or a snack of herring or sardines.
Stacey says participation is voluntary and the dolphins can choose to swim away or engage in another activity — they’re never denied food or proper care — though most of the time they choose to take part.
“When somebody asks me are the dolphins happy, it’s hard to quantify what’s happy to a dolphin,” she said. “When our animals are doing the same sorts of behaviours that dolphins do in the wild, when they’re healthy, they’re disease-free and they reproduce, we have a lot of indicators that say our animals are thriving in our care. But this study should give added information to assure that the animals are in good welfare. And we’re hoping to learn more about how can we continue to improve the animals’ lives.”
The project includes roughly 290 common and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, 20 beluga whales and eight Pacific white-sided dolphins at facilities across the globe. The data are gathered in two phases during summer 2018 and winter 2019, continuing into March.
Part of the study outfits the animals with movement tags — a device with sensors similar to a human Fitbit — which tracks their speed and depth and location in the water; three-dimensional models show how the animals are engaging their habitat and what percentage of the space they use, giving a better indication of how exhibit size and design impacts movement.
Researchers expect to analyse 7,040 of hours of data from the movement tags, as well as 636 veterinary exams, 880 weekly surveys completed by trainers, 1,320 hours of video of the marine mammals, 636 blood samples and 3,180 fecal samples.
On a recent weekday morning, a new shipment of frozen dolphin poop arrived on dry ice from Hong Kong. A freezer at the Brookfield Zoo contains some 850 vials of feces from all over the world, to be analysed in the facility’s endocrinology lab.
While the study is looking at some hormones that might indicate higher stress levels, like cortisol, it’s also examining levels of IgA, which has been associated with positive emotional states in shelter cats and humans, according to zoo staff.
Miller — whose graduate studies were in experimental psychology — said zoo staff are also looking into future study in cognitive bias in dolphins, a relatively new way of assessing animal welfare.
Animals can be trained to learn that if they go to the right, they get a big reward, and if they go to the left, the reward is small, he said. Then they’re given cues in ambiguous locations between the right and the left.
“You look at their behavioural response,” he said. “Are they anticipating that they’re going to get the big reward or are they anticipating that they’re going to get the small reward? … Animals that are in a positive emotional state are going to be more optimistic when making a decision and animals that are in a more negative emotional state will be more pessimistic when making a decision.”—Chicago Tribune/TNS
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