The Indianapolis Zoo’s newest dolphin, a male, died Thursday morning, one day shy of 3 weeks old.
A sad day for many, but certainly not a rare thing.
Still, the death came as a shock to many fans and caretakers at the Indianapolis Zoo, which had trumpeted the June 3 birth and posted a video of the baby dolphin swimming with his mom on YouTube.
The cause of death is not known.
“We do not yet know the exact circumstances, and the results of the gross post-mortem exam (necropsy) did not immediately reveal any problem that could be identified as a cause of death,” said zoo spokeswoman Judy Gagen.
Additional tests are planned, but it could be several weeks before they learn more about the cause of death.
Zoo officials say the calf had been doing well and had gained up to 15 pounds before his death, a sign of hope for a mammal that is often very fragile shortly after birth.
The remaining dolphins who reside at the pavilion — eight in all — will be closely monitored for signs of health problems, Gagen said.
The baby dolphin was conceived naturally at the zoo by Nova, who was impregnated by Kimo.
Both parents are part of the original seven dolphins brought to the zoo in 1989 from Florida.
Dolphin experts say giving birth to a dolphin is fraught with hits and misses. Only about half of all pregnancies actually result in a live birth — many are stillborn or premature births that result in death. About 70 percent of baby dolphins that do survive a live birth end up dying within the first three years.
Nova has had just one successful baby — Kalei, born in 2000 — who is now a robust young adult still living with the rest of the dolphins at the zoo. Two other successful births here were Indy, the daughter of China; and Jett, who is Ripley’s son.
The rest of the pregnancies have not gone so well.
“Each of the adult females have lost calves over the years, which is very common for dolphins, whether they are in the ocean or an aquarium,” Gagen said.
While experts agree there are difficulties both in the natural world of the ocean and the artificial world of the zoo’s aquarium, conservationists say that on average, dolphins stand a better chance of survival in the wild.
“Despite the apparent high quality of food and care, these captive dolphins are not living longer than their wild counterparts,” said Courtney Vail of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, a global advocacy group based in England.
In the wild, Vail said, dolphins that struggle or are rejected by their mothers often turn to other females who are part of a larger “pod” of support. Research shows that in many cases, youngsters are raised by those surrogate mothers.
“The first six or seven months are critical,” she said. “And we believe they have less of a fighting chance in captivity than they do in the wild.”
Zoo officials were not available to make further comments Thursday, but they have often said they use their exhibits as a way to inspire visitors to support conservation efforts in the animal kingdom.
Zoo officials were hoping for a boost in attendance with the new baby. Even though he was not going to be part of the daily show for quite some time, highly publicized births often result in a buzz that brings people to the shows.
That buzz had already begun. By the end of the day, more than 80 “friends” of the zoo’s Facebook page had posted condolences about the news of the dolphin’s death.
With such a large following, explaining the baby dolphin’s death to children could be difficult, said Judith Myers-Walls, a retired professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University.
“The youngest children will sense that someone is gone, but they may not get the idea that they won’t come back,” she said. “Parents need to explain that people and animals are born, they die and then new things come — the circle of life.”
Myers-Walls said it might be a good thing for frequent visitors to the zoo to mark this death by making a donation to the zoo or to a conservation group as a way to show recognition.
Since the baby dolphin was not yet part of the daily shows, Gagen said those dolphin shows have resumed.