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Animal husbandry may be defined as those procedures which are employed in the care of captive animals to ensure their physical and emotional health and well-being.
In the early 19th Century the first marine mammals were collected for captivity. Eventually it was determined that marine mammals could be taught to participate in their own medical care and husbandry. It wasn't until the mid-1960s that Keller Breland, a student of renowned behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, introduced the practice of bridging (refer to the "Training" chapter in this web site), reinforcement and stimulation as means of accomplishing more effective captive animal husbandry.
Marine mammals are able to learn to associate certain behaviors with certain stimuli. When these behaviors are performed properly they result in positive reinforcement. These stimuli are called "discriminative stimuli" because they allow the animal to discriminate between one stimulus and another relative to the behavior performed and reinforced. Such discriminative stimuli are recognized and responded to by animals even when they are ill or injured. Consequently, animal husbandry procedures are possible and effective.
It is natural for a dolphin to attempt to hide an injury or illness, as an obvious injury or illness in the wild would make it appear weak and more vulnerable to attack by a predator. Due to its attempt to hide a weakened state, much skill and experience is required to diagnose a dolphin's injury or problematic health issue. Husbandry behaviors are "simulated" frequently (without actually performing them) in an effort to desensitize the animal and provide for lower stress levels in the dolphin when their actual performance is required. There are many ways in which husbandry behaviors are carried out to manage the care and conditioning of captive animals.


Requesting the dolphin to "present flukes" allows the specialist to draw blood and to do a general assessment of the health of these two fins. A request to present flukes also may be used as a "hold" or "stay" of the animal so that other animals may be worked with or when the conditions are changing in the animal's environment. This holding of dolphins is called DRI, or differential reinforcement for incompatible behavior. At the conclusion of DRI, the dolphin is rewarded for its compliance with this request.

In the following video the trainer is teaching the dolphin to accept being handled in a "vertical up" position with pressure applied to the flukes. This procedure would be necessary if a blood draw was required. Blood would be drawn from the major vessel running along the underside of the flukes. The pressure being applied helps to simulate the needle stick required for the blood draw.

The following video shows the urine collection procedure, providing an important sample used for a variety of evaluations. The trainer first performs a "flukes haul out" by gently drawing the dolphin out onto a solid surface with its ventral side exposed. A flukes haul out not only allows for urine collection. It is also used to collect semen, blood, fecal, gastric, vaginal, respiratory and mammary milk samples for evaluation.
To begin the urine collection the trainer cleans the urogenital opening with an antiseptic gauze pad, places the collection cup into position for the urine catch, and applies light pressure on the bladder with the palm of the hand. The female dolphin then fills the cup.  Voluntary urine collection was first accomplished when trainers noticed predictable dolphin urination approximately 15 minutes after each feeding. The fact that the dolphin's bladder is quite small and the animal must urinate frequently aids in the training of this behavior. Urine collection is useful for monitoring hormone levels and is a less invasive method than blood collection. One important test of urine collected from the female dolphin is to measure the level of LH (luteinizing hormone). Urine samples required for LH testing are typically collected in 12 hour intervals. LH causes the release of an egg for potential fertilization. A significant increase seen in LH levels is indicative of impending egg release and is important information used for timing mating contact with males.

Another unique husbandry procedure is demonstrated below. The dolphin in this video spends its approximately 8 hours of rest each day with its melon (head) out of the water. Because, like man, a dolphin's skin may be damaged by excessive exposure to the sun's rays, it is seen receiving an application of sunscreen (Zinc Oxide).
This is applied during days when the sun is intense. If this dolphin were to live in the wild, it would most likely develop serious skin problems, perhaps even skin cancer, after years of exposure to the sun. Because of the husbandry procedures practiced in captivity it is protected against this outcome.

In order to protect a captive dolphin from dehydration while it spends significant time with its melon above the water surface, a sprinkler is provided to cool and dampen the exposed skin surface.


Here an Indianapolis Zoo dolphin specialist demonstrates a number of husbandry methods employed in caring for the Bottlenose dolphin.

Semen is collected from male dolphins on a trainer's command. Blood is drawn using a needle stick of the major vein located on the ventral surface of the flukes. Fecal samples are collected using a small rubber catheter placed into the animal's rectum. Gastric samples are withdrawn using a flexible lubricated tube placed down the dolphin's esophagus and into the stomach. Vaginal samples are collected by swabbing the vaginal interior. Respiratory samples are collected by requesting the dolphin to "chuff" or blow air out of the blowhole onto an absorbent card held just above the blowhole. This card may then be sent to the laboratory for analysis of micro-organisms and/or particulate present in the animal's respiratory tract.

In this flukes haul out, mammary milk is being obtained using a breast pump. Mammary milk may be examined for hormone levels as well as for studying changes in the ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrate as the female rears her nursing calf over the months following its birth. Another reason for milk collection is to provide an "emergency supply" should something happen to the mother and for some reason she is not able to nurse the calf.

"Blowhole desensitization" is the conditioning of the dolphin to having objects placed above and on the blowhole area of the melon. This area of the dolphin is very sensitive, as it represents the locale from which vocalizations and echolocations are produced and through which breaths are taken. A complex of nerves is located in this area to help the dolphin recognize when it has cleared the surface of the water and it is safe to inhale. Desensitization of this area is also performed for the purpose of medicating the dolphin. Medications targeted for the respiratory system (by way of blowhole inhalation) are given using an inhaler. This device requires repeated, specific desensitization practice. The dolphin is conditioned to inhale while this device is set on top of the blowhole. A mist of medicated vapor is released by the specialist into this apparatus as the dolphin inhales.


A "slide out" is used for general assessment or to weigh the dolphin using a flat, low-lying electronic scale.


A "ventral up" request allows for general visual health assessment of the ventral side of the animal, or to produce a sonogram using ultrasound equipment to monitor pregnancy or general health, or may be used as a DRI.

In conclusion, husbandry programs should include physical health care, environmental enrichment to stimulate the mind and provide exercise for the dolphin, the monitoring of animal behavior and emotions, proper record keeping and the development positive human-dolphin relationships. These programs ensure desensitization of the animal so that care can be provided at the lowest stress levels possible. High animal stress during the collection of samples has the real possibility of producing false positive or false negative test results on these samples. Often husbandry programs might include moving animals to other areas of the exhibit or preparing animals for transport. But animal care staff must remain sensitive to the possibility that certain animals on certain days may not be cooperative to these procedures and decide not to participate. Focusing on developing trust between animal and trainer can be an aid in reducing the frequency of such situations occurring.

Site Content
Understanddolphins.com contains information condensed from a number of reputable technical sources, peer reviewed journal articles, and respected dolphin research facilities, as well as from my personal experiences and observations as a dolphin VIP Tour Guide and Educator.
I have made every attempt to support the information presented in this site with video and still photographic images. On a regular basis I plan to produce more of these images and will continue to update the site with these as well as with any new and scientifically verified information which becomes available.

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