Minn. Zoo dolphin clued in on social skills

Poor Spree the dolphin. Born at the Minnesota Zoo in Aug. 2002, she lost her mother in 2006. Without a mom to teach her how to interact with other dolphins, she became the zoo outcast, lonely and clueless.

Her only role models were two male dolphins. They failed at the whole foster parenting thing and treated her like an adult instead of the 4-year-old she really was. The zoo even brought other female dolphins to the zoo in hopes they would relate to Spree and help her learn the ways of the species.

"Although dolphins are very social animals, relationships between individual animals may not always be friendly," says Diane Fusco, marine mammal supervisor at the Zoo. "This can lead to varying degrees of aggression, and unfortunately, this became the case between the dolphins."

Jump ahead to 2010 and Spree is having the time of her life. Three female dolphins from the Brookfield Zoo temporarily moved to Minnesota last summer while their home was renovated. Zoo officials introduced Spree to the mother and her two daughters and they have let Spree into their family.

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Since that day, much progress has been made. The dolphins are participating together in training sessions and working as a team. We have observed Tapeko, the matriarch, positively associating with Spree as she does with the other dolphins. Noelani, Allison, and Spree - who are all younger dolphins - are enjoying a typical juvenile relationship with each other. Although the dolphins have access to two pools, they stay together in one pool most of the time. We view this as a big step: Spree is choosing to remain with the other three dolphins on her own accord, which is great news for her social well being.

So Spree is learning how to be a normal dolphin and found her forever home. She will be moving back to the Brookfield Zoo in the spring when their new space is complete. Us Minnesotans lose a young dolphin to Illinois and hope our dolphin bad luck has come to an end. All of the dying and moving dolphins bum us out.

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