Chicago Tribune

Are dolphins in captivity emotionally and physically healthy? Researchers hope to find out

CHICAGO - The trainer touches her fingertips to the smooth rounded forehead of a common bottlenose dolphin named Noelani, a hand cue for the marine mammal to "chuff" or forcefully exhale through her blowhole, a behavior similar to a human cough.

After quickly catching some of the spray on a 3-inch glass slide, the trainer rewards Noelani with a treat – some herring or sardines from a silver bucket resting on the side of the dolphin habitat behind the scenes at the Brookfield Zoo.

The respiratory sample is one small piece of data in the largest international study on the welfare of captive dolphins and whales in history, led by the Brookfield Zoo and incorporating the work of 44 accredited aquariums and zoos in seven countries. The researchers believe these animals are prospering, but say there's little science on what conditions are optimal for dolphins and whales under professional care: What are the characteristics of the best habitat? How does the type and timing of animal training influence the behavior of these marine mammals?

The project intends to fill that void by analyzing every aspect of their lives, from

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