Saturday, 28 March 2009

For Minnesota Zoo, long wait for dolphin calf ends in sadness

It took hours for Allie to believe her calf would never move.

The 21-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin at the Minnesota Zoo spent much of Thursday morning circling the stillborn calf, using her beak to push her baby to the surface so it could take its first breath.

"There was no way she was going to let us near that calf until she realized it was not going to swim with her," said Kevin Willis, director of biological programs at the zoo.

Signs of labor problems came early.

Allie had released an abnormal amount of fluid and blood by the time on-call staff arrived early Thursday.

"Nobody wanted to think this might not work," Willis said.

Once born, the 45-inch-long, 33-pound female calf was lifeless.

Suddenly, hopes of having the zoo's first successful dolphin birth since three dolphins — including 7-month-old calf Harley — died in 2006 quickly turned into sadness.

The stillborn calf was the second at the Minnesota Zoo, which has had eight dolphin births since the facility opened 31 years ago, Willis said.

The calf likely died of complications during labor caused by a damaged umbilical cord, Willis said. A necropsy — an autopsy on an animal — will be performed to examine the cause of death further.

Stillborn deaths are common among dolphins, especially for younger females having their first or second calf, said Paul Boyle, senior vice president for conservation and education at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Maryland.

This was Allie's second calf.

"Nobody wants to see a dolphin lost, especially at birth," Boyle said.

An estimated 70 percent of dolphins born in captivity survive their first 30 days, zoo staff said.

A sign at the dolphin aquarium Thursday alerted visitors to the news. Children rushed to the aquarium to watch the dolphins swim, while their parents stopped to read.

"It's disappointing. You don't know when (is) the next time it's going to happen," said Ciara Brix, referring to another dolphin pregnancy. Brix, 27, a nanny from Burnsville, has been following Allie's pregnancy.

There were no signs of complications before the labor. Two days before the birth, the estimated 500-pound mom underwent an ultrasound that showed the calf had a strong fetal heartbeat and was correctly positioned.

Zookeepers had hoped the calf's birth would bring good news to its Discovery Bay exhibit. Allie's pregnancy was highly publicized.

Trainers documented the careful preparation for Allie's delivery on a blog. They even posted a video of a monthly ultrasound, showing the calf's spine and beating heart.

Allie and her mom, April, 41, were shipped to the Minnesota Zoo from a Florida facility early last year with the hope they would mate with Semo, 45.

"Basically, our little picture of what the future will be, changed," Willis said.

Plans are to reunite Allie and April, who have been together in the maternity pool, with Semo and his 7-year-old daughter, Spree.

Maintenance on the dolphin pools, which was postponed because of the expected birth, will now begin.

As zoos and aquariums nationwide monitor captive dolphin populations, the Minnesota Zoo will wait to see whether other facilities have successful pregnancies before trying again.

Whatever the scenario, Allie and April likely will stay in Minnesota.

"This has been a story," Willis said. "There were complications during labor. It doesn't mean you stop trying. It doesn't mean you did something wrong."

Maricella Miranda can be reached at 651-228-5421.


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