Photo courtesy Minnesota Zoo
APPLE VALLEY, Minn. - Thirty-five years of happy faces ended with a sad day for dolphin lovers at the Minnesota Zoo.
Friday was the final day for the zoo's popular dolphin shows.
"Part of why we're here is the end of the dolphins," said Judy Bonnema, as she waited for the 10 a.m. dolphin presentation with her grandchildren.
The zoo's two remaining dolphins, Allie and Semo, will be moving to new - though still unnamed - homes. The zoo plans a "farewell week" for the pair starting Saturday and running through Sunday, Sept. 9. No shows are scheduled, but doors will be open for visitors to view the dolphins and their interactions with trainers.
Dolphins have been a favorite of visitors since the zoo opened in 1978, but circumstance conspired to end their run.
Salt water has taken a toll on the dolphin's pool. But even with $4 million in planned repairs, too few free dolphins are available through a dolphin sharing consortium to put together a half a dozen dolphins for a proper social group, according to Kevin Willis, the zoo's director of biological programs.
"I just don't have any options. I can't get dolphins," said Willis.
The zoo purchased dolphins in its early years for as little as $6,000, but Willis says a female dolphin can now fetch $500,000, well beyond the zoo's price range.
"They've been in the collection since we opened. The public are going to miss them, there's just no question," said Wills.
The zoo's seven trainers are going to miss the dolphins too.
"It's hard to think of them not being here and not being able to interact with them," said Heather LaRock, who's worked with the zoo's dolphins for more than a decade.
Diane Fusco, the zoo's marine mammal supervisor has been with the Dolphin program from its start. She called the dolphins a big part of her life and expressed her disappointment with their departure, "but we all know this is what's best for the animals."
48-year-old Semo is thought to be the nation's oldest dolphin under human care.
Zoo officials haven't decided what to put in the pool once it's repaired, but are considering fish, sharks and rays for the short term.
Seals, walruses and giant river otters are possibilities farther down the road, according to Willis. Even another group of dolphins is possible if more become available, though Willis said he didn't want people to "hold their breath because I can't make any promises."
He acknowledged the challenge being faced by the zoo.
"We need to find something that will still engage people, still introduce them to the ocean, still be fun," said Willis. But I don't know how I can compete with dolphins."
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