Special dolphin update

Published June 28, 2011

As you may have already learned through news media, Spirit’s calf passed away over the weekend. Having just endured the sudden loss of Maya’s calf last week, this has been an extremely sad and difficult week for everyone at the National Aquarium. As we shared last week, Maya’s calf died suddenly early Tuesday morning. The male calf appeared strong and was being cared for and nursed by his mother Maya, and was living in the same pool as Spirit and her female calf. There were no signs of declining health. Just days later, on Friday, June 24, Spirit’s female calf began showing signs of declining health. The marine mammal team kept close watch of the calf for the next 24 hours, tracking respiratory and nursing patterns, as well as behavioral changes. On Saturday, the veterinary staff intervened with a medical procedure, but despite their best efforts, the calf passed away. Spirit’s calf was also transported to John’s Hopkins where tests are being performed. At this time, our animal care staff does not have answers as to whether the two deaths are related, but we will know more in the weeks to come. Though these losses were sudden, our dolphin trainers and veterinarian team are always cautiously optimistic about the survival of the calves. Dolphin calves have a high mortality rate: a high percentage of calves born in any setting don’t survive their first year. But even with this in mind, these losses are extremely difficult for our team who works tirelessly to provide our animals with the absolute best care. Several aspects affect dolphin calf survival, as they are especially fragile in their first year of life, regardless of whether they are in the ocean or in an aquarium. Dolphins are born in the water and must immediately begin swimming along with the mother, surfacing to breathe, and nursing underwater while staying on the move. That is a lot to do at one time, and it is amazing to watch a dolphin calf learn these skills in its first month of life. In addition to hitting those milestones, the first few weeks of life are precarious because the calf’s immune system is not developed, which is the main cause of infection. It’s important that the calf nurses in the first 36 hours. The first milk, called colostrum, is rich in antibodies and minerals that are needed to strengthen the calf’s immune system to fight infection. After this time period, the antibody levels drop off, although the milk remains high in fat and energy. Because Maya was a first-time mother, we had initial concerns about the amount of time it took for the calf to nurse and receive the antibody-rich milk needed to fight off infection. Spirit’s calf, however, did nurse in the first 26 hours and was showing great signs of growth up until last week. When a calf’s health begins to decline, the Aquarium does everything it can, but ultimately, the survival of the calf depends largely on the mother. In spite of this level of care, sometimes nature overrides our best efforts. On Sunday, all dolphin shows were canceled and the amphitheater was closed to the public so the trainers could tend to the mothers and spend time interacting with the entire dolphin group. When an event like this occurs, it is important we focus on the animals because they have lost one of their own and we have learned that it affects them. Staff and volunteers continued 24-hour observations of the dolphins on Sunday. This morning, we temporarily canceled shows so that our animal health staff and trainers can assess the health of all of our dolphins. Even though our dolphin presentation is very popular among our visitors, with shows selling out daily during the summer, the care and health of our animals always comes first. Changes to the show can occur on a daily basis, which is the nature of working with animals. Given the uncertainty of these recent deaths, it is important that we take a step back so we can get a good look at the health of our entire dolphin family. Thank you to all of our terrific friends, fans, and followers for reaching out and sharing condolences. Your kind words and support are deeply appreciated. We remain committed to keeping our friends, visitors, and supporters regularly updated on the status and health of the 16,000-plus animals that call the Aquarium home. We welcome questions and comments and encourage you to please share them in the section below or on our Facebook page, or to dolphins@aqua.org.
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