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Here at Dolphin Connection, we love dolphins. Chances are that since you’re reading this blog, you do too, and it might even be safe to assume that dolphins aren’t the only animals who hold a special place in your heart. We hope so, because today we want to step outside of our typical area of focus to talk about another intelligent, large, social, gray mammal: elephants.
Recently, several members of the Dolphin Connection team had the opportunity to attend an international conference for people who work with animals of all kinds. Because of the broad subject matter, we found ourselves learning not just about dolphins and other marine mammals, but also about land animals of the furry, feathery, and scaly variety. The conference commenced with a keynote speaker from the Wildlife Conservation Society who told us of the plight of the African elephant and of the 96 Elephants campaign whose aim is to unite people around the world to protect these amazing animals from extinction.
African elephants are an iconic species, known for their size, their trunks, and of course their tusks. These tusks, found on both the males and females of the species, are made of ivory, and while crucial for their survival, they are also integral to their demise. Although the commercial trade of ivory has been illegal since 1989, illegal poaching continues at a pace that threatens the elephants’ future survival: 35,000 elephants per year, 96 elephants per day. At this rate, we will lose the African forest elephant in 10 years and the East African savanna elephant soon after.
“If we do not act, we will have to shamefully admit to our children that we stood by as elephants were driven out of existence.” – WCS Conservationists
Rather than individual subsistence hunters with homemade weapons of yesteryear, poachers nowadays are high tech militants with automatic weapons, night vision goggles, GPS equipment and even helicopters. If they sound like professional criminals, they are. In fact the black market for ivory helps to fund many notorious terrorist groups.
So who can stop the killing? You can! Crushing the demand for ivory crushes the reward for the poachers. Increasing awareness of the issue increases the size of, and the support for, the army fighting for elephants’ survival.
Are you politically inclined? Click here to learn more about the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to ban the commercial ivory trade and here to ensure that the controls on trade of elephant ivory stand strong.
Are you active on social media? Click here to take an #elphie and share it with the world! The more people who know, the more people who care!
Ninety-six elephants a day. Every day. Today. Tomorrow. And on, until our army of animal lovers becomes bigger and stronger than the army of poachers fueled by a black market demand for ivory by people who are unaware or unaffected by the possibility that we may soon live in a world without African elephants.
As always, we were so happy to return to our island paradise in the Florida Keys after this amazing conference, and while we are grateful for the healthy conservation status of bottlenose dolphins in the wild, it is imperative that we – and you – never forget how many other animals around the globe need our help, every day.
Photo Credit: Julie Larsen/Wildlife Conservation Society
Many people are understandably concerned about the inhumane killing of dolphins that occurs during the Japanese drive fisheries. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums - and all of its member facilities including Dolphin Connection - shares that concern. The AMMPA is an organization that advocates for marine mammals and whose members inspire their guests to learn about and respect these animals, protect them in the wild, and conserve their ocean environments.
The Alliance and its members strongly condemn the Japanese drive fisheries. It is a centuries-old practice, but it is time for it to come to an end. Alliance members do not support, fund, or acquire animals from the Japanese drive fisheries. Not one animal in an Alliance member facility or interactive program is from Japan. Alliance policy strictly prohibits any zoological park and aquarium from joining the organization if the facility acquires animals from the Japanese drive fisheries.
The majority of the dolphins cared for by the Alliance members - more than 65% - were born in accredited facilities, thanks to tremendously successful breeding programs and the high quality of animal care provided by accredited members.
The Alliance has urged U.S. government and representative agencies to proactively work with the government of Japan to bring an end to this practice. If you share our concerns and want to help stop the slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan, please write to the Prime Minister of Japan at www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/forms/comment.html and the Japanese Ambassador in Washington D.C., at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Alliance and its members share your love and respect for these amazing animals. We dedicate our lives to caring for dolphins, whales, walrus,manatees, otters, seals, and sea lions every day. The Alliance encourages the public to partner with our members to increase public awareness on the many issues that threaten marine mammals and their ocean habitats.
Some of you loyal readers of the Dolphin Connection monthly blog may remember that last September we wrote about the critically endangered vaquita, a very small porpoise found in Mexico’s Gulf of California. At the time, populations were estimated to be in the low hundreds and dropping due to gill net fishing in the area. While the vaquita themselves are not the object of the fishery, they are frequently the unintended bycatch of an indiscriminate fishing practice.
Just recently, an updated study has come out estimating the vaquita population at less than 100. Most tragic is the fact that the reproductively mature females number less than 25, typically giving birth to one calf every other year. At this rate, the current population cannot withstand the mortality that they face. Although the local community has long depended on the fishermen to feed their families, there has recently been a very sharp rise in the use of gill net fishing. According to the article below, this rise is due to the illegal trade in China of a fish called the “totoaba” whose swim bladder is believed to have medicinal properties. One of the scientists involved in vaquita conservation in Mexico has reported that fishermen are being offered $8,500 per kilogram of totoaba by the Chinese black market; much more than they would ever make during a day of fishing to feed the community.
The good news is that other than fishing nets, there are very few threats to the vaquita. With increasing awareness about this dangerous fishing practice and the illegal trade of the totoaba to China, there may still be a chance for the vaquita.
We’re so very grateful for our healthy dolphins and the healthy status of wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins who are not endangered. As the sun sets over another summer in the Florida Keys with the team at Dolphin Connection sharing the opportunity to swim with dolphins with so many of you here at Hawks Cay Resort, we encourage you to think about the animals who need our help, and to learn more about what you can do to increase the chances of their survival:
The team here at Dolphin Connection is lucky enough to meet families every day that are raising children who care for and respect wildlife and wild lands. We know how important this is because in just a blink of an eye, these children will be the decision makers for our future. With this in mind, zoos and aquariums around the world have always focused a large percentage of their educational programs on the youth in their community. We know that this kind of programming needs to be fun, high energy, and current in order to keep our children engaged, but celebrities, video games, and social media will really seal the deal! A wonderfully successful example of just such a program is SeaWorld Kids Generation Nature. With Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late renowned environmentalist Steve Irwin, providing the celebrity hook, Generation Nature is a website that leads children through games, projects, and environmental challenges using every kid-friendly resource imaginable.
We love what they’re doing at SeaWorld and we encourage you to check it out!
On the 8th of last month we celebrated World Oceans Day, and in fact Dolphin Connection and other zoological facilities accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) took it a step further and celebrated World Oceans Month! We took all of June and proclaimed #OurWorldOceans through social media. The goal of this campaign was to bring attention to the ocean environment and to all the animals who depend on it. Through Facebook and Twitter, thirty days of animal information, conservation tips, and calls to action were posted with the hashtags #OurWorldOceans and #AMMPA.
While accredited zoos and aquariums have always been a cohesive team, working together for the welfare of our animals, this was the first time we’ve embarked on a unified campaign using social media as a global platform for animal advocacy. Look around your living room, public transportation, or even a restaurant; what do you see? Chances are that there are people of all ages, including teens and tweens, glued to their smart phones. And what are they doing there? Tweeting! Blogging! Facebooking! This is how our young people communicate and as part of that, it’s also how our young people will share their passions, their ideas, and their hopes for the future. With the survival of our animals and their habitats in the hands of our youth, joining them where they hang out – on social media – is the best way to ensure that they have all the crucial information that they need as they get older and become our environmental decision makers.
With this in mind, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums introduced MarineMammalMonday, TakeActionTuesday, AwarenessWednesday, CreatureFeatureThursday, FunFactFriday, SelfieSaturday, and ShareTheLoveSunday. Every day included inspiring photographs, useful weblinks, and scientific information about the marine species we love. The success of this campaign was so great that we’re not going to stop with the end of World Oceans Month. Keep your eyes open for more information coming from all your favorite marine mammal facilities at #AMMPA. As long as you want to learn, we want to teach!
Last month, the team at Dolphin Connection was honored to be a part of Family Science Night at Treasure Village Montessori School here in the Florida Keys. Supported by the Ocean Reef Community Foundation, Keys Ahead, Inc., and Florida International University, this community-building event included a variety of science activities designed to engage students, parents and teachers.
As one of many special guests at this exciting event, we were excited to share our own passion and enthusiasm for marine science with the people of the Florida Keys community, and we were just as excited to learn from the other local scientists and conservationist represented. So, on a beautiful Friday evening we jumped in a car drove into the sunset on our way to Treasure Village Montessori in Islamorada.
Upon arriving at the school, we were greeted by a variety of other participants, all representing scientific organizations in south Florida. Included among these colleagues were The Turtle Hospital, NOAA Fisheries, The History of Diving Museum, and The Coral Restoration Foundation. Clearly we had a great night ahead of us!
We set up our booth full of activity sheets, conservation tips, career guides, and even some fascinating bones and skulls, and soon the doors opened and one by one, families, local community members, and teachers began to arrive. The school itself hosts students from pre-K through 8th grade, so the attendees at this event represented that age range, as well as all the associated parents and grandparents. One thing we know about dolphins is that they excite and inspire people of all ages, and this night was no exception. Who doesn’t want to see what a dolphin’s skull feels like or learn about the amazing role that their lower jaw plays in echolocation? This group certainly did!
Of course, one of the unique qualities defining children of the Florida Keys is that many of them are out on the water frequently and they’ve seen all the fish, sharks, birds and – yes, dolphins – that children in the rest of the country may only dream of. Because of this our focus wasn’t just, “Look how cool dolphins are!” – these students already know that, but instead we focused on safe, respectful, and law-abiding ways to share our oceans with the animals who call it home. So many of our local children have family members with boats and even family members who are professional fishermen, so what could be more important than to make sure that these children grow up with an awareness of the ocean as a home as much as it is a place for recreation? With this in mind, every individual who passed by our booth received a “Dolphin-Friendly Fishing and Viewing Tips” card and had the opportunity to learn more about wild dolphins’ natural behaviors and why it is so important to give them the space to hunt, parent, and socialize without fear of boats.
By the end of the evening, the adults had their hands full of take-home projects, informational brochures, and gifts, while the children were immersed in a spontaneous game of freeze tag in the school’s playground. Delighted with the number of people we reached at this special event, our team packed our bags and drove back to Hawks Cay Resort, ready for another day of Inspiring Conservation and swimming with dolphins!
Here at Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys, we are so grateful for our small island community. The friendships and partnerships that come from island life are priceless; nonetheless we certainly like to be reminded of the big world out there and our most recent visitor certainly did just that!
Last month we were honored with a visit from world-renowned marine mammal veterinarian, Dr. Geraldine Lacave. Hailing from Belgium, Dr. Lacave works as a consultant for multiple marine mammal facilities in Europe and worldwide. She is also a member and active participant with the EAAM (European Association for Aquatic Mammals), IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainers Association), and IAAAM (International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine). Recently, Dr. Lacave was in the United States for a marine mammal conference and we were lucky enough to convince her and her family to spend some time in the Florida Keys for some sunsets, beaches, and of course swimming with dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort. While she was here, she took the time to speak with the Dolphin Connection training team about marine mammal veterinary training, with a focus on pre- and post-partum care for bottlenose dolphin mothers and calves.
The trainers here at Dolphin Connection range from experienced professionals who have been in the field for over 20 years, to young beginners whose careers in dolphin training are just in their infancy. For all of us, regardless of our time in the field, opportunities like this are precious. In fact, one of our most senior staff members said, after listening to Dr. Lacave share her experiences with dolphin newborns, “No matter how long one has been in the field, there is always something to learn. The learning process with these amazing animals never ceases!” Other reactions from our team included, “Even though I know it, see it, and live it, the obvious dedication people around the world have for the animals under their care continues to be inspiring!”
Ultimately, one of the most important reasons for animal training is that it allows us to take better care of the animals we love. Directly or indirectly, every behavior we train our animals to do benefits their health. Have you met a dolphin and pet its tail fluke? Did you know that that behavior is crucial because it allows us to safely take a blood sample so that we can be proactive about our veterinary care? Have you ever rubbed a dolphin’s side as it lay out in front of you? That behavior allows us to complete an ultrasound exam to track a pregnancy or assess the health of internal organs. Hearing from Dr. Lacave about the benefits of husbandry (veterinary) training and learning about all the ways in which she’s seen it lead to advancements in the healthcare of dolphins is inspiring to all dolphins trainers and our team could not be more grateful.
It’s Spring Break and everyone is flocking to the Florida Keys! College kids? Busy families? No, I’m talking about birds! Every March and April, many species of birds migrate through the Florida Keys from their southern wintering grounds in the tropics where they’ve been gorging on bugs and berries. Some of these migratory birds fly right over us on their way further north, while some of the birds stop for a while, resting and refueling before they complete their trek. Typically this great migration begins in March, but it really reaches its peak in April. In fact, the influx of birds is so great at this time of year that Doppler radar used for weather forecasting will pick up “clouds” of birds with densities of 10,000 birds per square mile! These animals are fast-moving, however, and they will have left our islands by mid May so now is the time to come see them.
If you have binoculars or a zoom lens, you’ll be in good company as you join the other birders who – along with the birds – flock to the Keys as the southernmost point of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Warblers, sparrows, herons, and spoonbills, are some of the birds you may be lucky enough to see if you spend some time on our island chain with your eyes to the sky!
What could possibly make a successful day of birding even better? How about swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Connection?! A vacation full of wildlife in the Florida Keys at Hawks Cay Resort with the birds above and the dolphins below: Well it just doesn't get any better than that! So have a wonderful Spring Break and say hi to the animals in your neighborhood: both the permanent residents and those just passing through.
March has arrived, and along with it comes some very exciting news! Last month Dolphin Connection was inspected by both the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) and this month we can proudly announce our reaccreditation by these professional organizations. These inspections take place every five years and the resulting membership with these associations assures us, our colleagues, and most importantly YOU, that we are doing the very best for the animals in our care.
Renewing our accreditation by the AMMPA is a process that began with a written application and ended with an on-site inspection by experts in the field. Topics included animal training and breeding, staff training and development, environmental quality, and so much more. Inspectors observe interactive programs and classes and visit any behind-the-scenes area they’d like. They look at animal records and they interview staff members. Ultimately their goal is to determine that the facility they are inspecting is doing everything it can to raise healthy animals, manage educated and informed employees, and present inspiring and informational programs.
Renewing our accreditation by IMATA also included the completion of a written application and then a subsequent on-site inspection. In this case, the focus was primarily on the training and development of our staff. What are our requirements for hiring? How do we train our trainers? Are there exams they must take and readings they must complete for advancement? Is their growth evaluated and measured? Ultimately, their goal is to determine that our staff is as prepared and qualified as can be to provide a working environment that is safe and healthy and enriching for themselves, our dolphins, and you!
Last month’s reaccreditations continue our long and proud history of membership in these professional organizations. As knowledge in the marine mammal training field has grown, we have grown too. Our animals are even healthier and happier, our expectations of our staff are increased, and our hopes for you are greater. So, thank you to our visiting inspectors from the Alliance of Marine Mammals Parks and Aquariums and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association! We loved having you here and having the opportunity to show you what we do every day and why we are so proud to be marine mammal trainers.
And to all of our guests who have been here in the past, and will come in the future to swim with our dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort in the beautiful Florida Keys: Thank You. We enjoy every opportunity we have to share our animals with you.
February is here and love is in the air. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you, and also to all of the animals that we love here at Dolphin Connection and all around the Florida Keys. Luckily for these animals, we’re not the only ones who love them; many organizations here in our island chain are dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care of the local wildlife.
Just down the road from us is the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Located at Mile Marker 50 at the Crane Point Hammock, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is dedicated to animal care and community education. Whether it’s the native, year-round bird population or the seasonal, migratory population, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is here to help them. Typical issues causing a bird to need assistance are entanglement in fishing line, injury due to ingesting fish remains from fishermen, starvation, or premature separation from parents. While the Wild Bird Center does a wonderful job with all of their patients, we could all make their job easier by doing our part to make the Keys a safer place for birds to live.
Are you a fisherman? If so, the simple act of keeping your used fishing line and fishing hooks on board until you find a proper trash or recycling receptacle can save so many animals’ lives. Fishing line is designed to be invisible: that’s why it works so well with fish. Unfortunately, it’s also rather invisible to birds and other wildlife. Fishing line that is discarded from boats, bridges, marinas, etc. ends up floating in the water, tangled around pilings or electric lines, or wound around rocks or seaweeds. All of these final resting places for the line are also resting places for the birds, and one wrong step places the bird’s foot right into a pile of line that works just like a snare. Simply pledging to not let our line loose in a bird’s habitat can make such a difference.
Now, after you’ve had your successful fishing trip and all of your used fishing line has been placed in the recycling bin, you need to clean your fish. It seems completely natural to discard the skin, bones, and other unusable parts of the fish right back into the sea. It’s even satisfying when other animals like fish, sharks, and birds come to enjoy these remains. Unfortunately, most predatory marine life, including pelicans, are not meant to eat fish in pieces. Instead, they eat the fish whole. This means that their delicate bodies are protected from the fish bones until these bones are safely decomposing in the animal’s stomach acid. Pelicans who scavenge from a fisherman’s spoils can tear their fragile throat pouch on these bones. Throwing your fish bones into the trash rather than giving them to the begging birds is so much safer, despite what the birds might try to tell you!
Past the Marathon Wild Bird Center is the Turtle Hospital. Just like the Bird Center, the Turtle Hospital focus on wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care. Also, just like the Bird Center, one of the primary causes of injury to the wildlife that they see is ingestion of, or entanglement in, fishing line. So many of the patients at the Turtle Hospital have ingested a fishing hook and line and are now suffering as it tries to make its way through their system. Other common injuries are due to boat strike by boaters who are going too fast through the sea turtles’ home. Luckily, just like with the wild birds who need our help, the solutions to the sea turtles’ problems are so absolutely within our power. Care with our fishing gear, appropriate speeds on our water ways, and awareness of our impacts on the planet: these are all wonderful Valentine’s Day gifts that we can give to our fellow Keys residents this month.
We wish you all love, sunsets, romantic visits to Hawks Cay Resort, and of course fun times swimming with dolphins. But most of all, we wish for health and happiness for the wonderful animals walking beside us, swimming around us, and flying above us.
Here at Dolphin Connection, we know how lucky we are to be able to spend our days training dolphins. We also know how lucky our dolphins are, because it’s training that allows us to provide them with the very best animal welfare in the way of health care and enrichment. In fact, you’re pretty lucky too. Did you know that it’s thanks to trained dolphins that you’ve been able to learn all that you know about dolphin behavior, natural history and adaptations? Last month we were reminded that it’s not just us and our flippered friends who benefit from training; many other people and animals around the world make the most of animal training as well. We all know how valuable a service dog can be for a visually impaired person or even a person with a seizure disorder or other health concern, and of course dogs are frequently used in the military or by the police force. It was one of these amazingly well-trained dogs who spent some time at Dolphin Connection recently, bringing a whole new view of animal training to both our trainers and our dolphins!
In December, Deputy US Marshal Smith and his explosives detection dog, K9 Wanda, came to visit the Florida Keys and we were lucky enough to have them stay right here at Hawks Cay Resort. Wanda is one of only sixteen dogs certified with the Explosives Detection Canine Program and she lives in Atlanta, Georgia. K9 Wanda started her career training to be a guide dog for the blind in New York but once it was determined that she was better suited for law enforcement, she began her training with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) Canine Training Center. K9 Wanda can detect 19,000 different types of explosives and firearms and it’s daily practice with Deputy Smith that keeps her skills so sharp.
K9 Wanda and Deputy Smith were here in the Keys on duty, but they had a little bit of free time to swim with the dolphins and exchange some trade secrets with our training staff. As it turns out, whether you’re training dogs or dolphins, and whether you’re training them for health care or safety or detection, the techniques used and the relationships developed are just about the same.
The Dolphin Connection training team spent some time introducing K9 Wanda to our dolphins from out of the water, and then Deputy Smith had a chance to climb into the lagoon to meet the dolphins in their world. Finally, and this was the most exciting part for those of us who work with dolphins every day but who love all animals, K9 Wanda demonstrated her detection skills and Deputy Smith walked us through the training process and showed off some of the most impressive trained behaviors.
Every day we are grateful for the opportunity we have to spend our lives caring for our dolphins. The science of animal training provides a system we can use to communicate with them, take care of them, and safely bring them into contact with so many people who can learn from them. Discussing the amazing benefits of positive reinforcement-based training with someone who is just as passionate and knowledgeable is the kind of stimulating conversation we dream of. Having that opportunity while also snuggling with a dog…well that’s just the icing on the cake of another perfect day in the Florida Keys.
In July of this year, we told you about some very important research happening in Sarasota Bay on the west coast of Florida. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), an organization which Dolphin Connection has supported and partnered with for years, has been conducting health assessment studies on the local bottlenose dolphins for over 40 years. The data emerging from this study provides us with the majority of what we know about wild dolphin anatomy, behavior, natural history, and health. Whether it’s with financial resources, supplies, or personnel, Dolphin Connection is dedicated to contributing all we can to this incredibly valuable study.
This year, the data from the past 40 years is especially valuable because it provides baseline information about animals living in a relatively healthy environment which can be compared to data from health assessments conducted in parts of the Gulf of Mexico impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill disaster. In 2011 and again in 2013, SDRP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted health assessments on dolphins in Barataria Bay and the Mississippi Sound, areas in the Gulf severely affected by the oil spill. Sample and data analyses for 2011 and 2013 are underway, but preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease. Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.
While these preliminary results are disturbing, there may be some good news in the form of inspiration: How does it make you feel when you hear about a manmade disaster threatening the lives of dolphins? Sad? Angry? Motivated? How about informed? Aware? Committed? With all of us living near the coast, or near waterways or drains that lead to the coast, we all impact the health of the oceans. What kind of an impact we make is up to us. Knowing how an oil spill may be affecting dolphins might be just the wakeup call we need to take action. Will it encourage a beach walker to bend down and pick up a plastic bag from the surf before it becomes a sea turtle’s lunch? Will it inspire a grocery shopper to purchase in bulk and use canvas bags to minimize the amount of plastic in their life? Will it inspire a busy family to take some time to go for a walk together and participate in a coastal cleanup?
With warm winter temperatures and beautiful sunsets, life at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys can feel pretty idyllic. Surrounded by the protected waters of a National Marine Sanctuary, it is easy to swim with our dolphins and enjoy the tropical fish darting around our toes and forget that not so far away are habitats and animals who truly need our help. So in the spirit of the season, rather than letting the bad news defeat us, let’s use it as a reminder to enjoy all that we have and help those in need.