BROOKFIELD, Ill. - Brookfield Zoo is making some changes in how they care for dolphins — following a multi-year, global research study.
At the Zoo, FOX 32 saw it take just seconds for three young dolphins to work together to get treats from a tube. Going forward, their care team might make the task more difficult.
"We're really trying to get them to think about this puzzle that we may have offered them, and how can they maybe work together to get to whatever surprised might be inside," said Rita Stacey, Curator of Marine Mammals at Brookfield Zoo.
Stacey calls these activities "cognitive enrichment" using "behavioral enrichment devices" — which you and I might call toys. The new research led by Brookfield Zoo shows this play time is serious business to the health of a dolphin.
"Being able to add new enrichment devices into their environment helps to encourage those behaviors that we want to see that are very indicative of a healthy and thriving animal," Stacey said.
FOX 32 visited the zoo in 2018, when they outfitted animals with activity trackers — kind of like the watches many humans wear to track steps. Those movement trackers, plus blood and fecal samples from dolphins and whales at 43 different zoos and aquariums, gave Dr. Lisa Lauderdale insight into the animals' overall welfare while under professional care.
"Compared to the size of the pool we found more things like the enrichment activities and the cognitive challenges that we provide them are more related to things that improve their welfare," the Animal Welfare Scientist explained.
Because the dolphins at the zoo don’t have to hunt for food or survive in the wild, how they spend their time is important.
Stacey says the research has caused them to schedule more enrichment activities each day and change up those activities more often.
"We actually have the animal care team rotate in terms of whose responsibility is that day to be 'the activity director of the day' for the dolphins," Stacey said.
The research led to an app for zoos to see if their animals' health data is in the normal range.
And at Brookfield Zoo, it's prompted a daily diet of anything but boring for the dolphins.