bottlenose dolphin management by the numbers

Zoos and aquariums accredited by professional organizations, such as the Alliance for Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), have high standards of care and implement programs that specifically evaluate and manage animal welfare. Accredited organizations incorporate the welfare of the individual and the group as a top priority that guides their management practices. The habitat characteristics and management practices relating to environmental enrichment and training programs provide additional opportunities for mental and physical stimulation of the animals.

We know that habitat, environmental enrichment, and training play important roles in dolphin welfare, but what do the current numbers look like? To find out, we surveyed 38 zoos and aquariums in seven countries about their habitat and management practices with 86 common and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins.

Environmental enrichment programs are designed to enhance an animals’ habitat and encourage species-appropriate behavior through the addition of stimuli in a variety of forms. The goal is to promote engagement, increase behavioral diversity, provide opportunities for behavioral choice, and give the animals control over their environment. There was a wide variety of environmental enrichment in the programs at the zoos and aquariums we surveyed. The enrichment that was provided fell into 22 different categories. In most programs (75.6%), environmental enrichment was provided on a semi-random schedule. New enrichment was added at least once a month at 62.8% of habitats.

Training programs provide cognitive enrichment and physical exercise. In addition, dolphins are also trained to participate in their healthcare by learning to perform medical behaviors that enable veterinary care which improves our ability to rapidly diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses. The dolphins participated in several different types of training sessions including sessions with their care specialist/trainers, research sessions, interaction programs, and public presentations. Most training programs used semi-predicable schedules (62.8%) to determine when training sessions would occur.

The dolphin’s habitat is another major component of environment that is related to their welfare. Habitat use is a potential indicator of the appropriateness of an environment for a species or individual. The physical characteristics, such as the length and depth of the habitat, also have been suggested to influence behavior. The average maximum habitat length was 135 feet, and the average maximum habitat depth was 25 feet. Most facilities were designed so that areas of the habitat could be separated using a gating system. The majority of the dolphins lived in habitats between one and five areas that could be separated by gates. On average, the dolphins had access to approximately 690,000 gallons of water.

While the habitats, training programs, and environmental enrichment programs vary, accredited zoos and aquariums meet and exceed the high standards of care and welfare set by professional accrediting organization. To learn more about the accreditations held by the Chicago Zoological Society, check out our post on What Is Zoo Accreditation and Why Is it Important? 
Lisa Lauderdale, Ph.D.
Animal Welfare Scientist
Published September 7, 2023