More than two million people each year visit the Brookfield Zoo’s Seven Seas exhibit in suburban Chicago. The exhibit, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is the oldest inland dolphin habitat in the United States. It focuses on the Chicago Zoological Society’s efforts to promote marine conservation.
Fifty years ago, the only way people in the US. Midwest could see dolphins up close was by visiting the coastline. The Chicago Zoological Society wanted to bring that experience closer to home.
"This was a very groundbreaking facility," said Rita Stacey, curator of the Seven Seas exhibit at Brookfield Zoo. She's worked with dolphins at the zoo for twenty years. "It was the first inland Dolphinarium. It was the first one to use artificial saltwater. We now create our own man-made saltwater here."
That technological advance allowed the zoo to create a permanent habitat for marine mammals far from the ocean. The exhibit, which Stacey said is as close to their natural environment as possible, attracts millions of visitors every year, even when temperatures are below freezing outside.
"This is actually our second building," said Stacey. "Our first building was operated for close to about 25 years. And in that 25 years, we had estimated about 11.5 million people had gone into that facility and saw the dolphins there."
Stacey said the Chicago Zoological Society, which runs the Brookfield Zoo, is one of the leading institutions promoting a better understanding of marine life. She said some research, including how dolphins breed and communicate, is a product of studying dolphins at the zoo.
"There is so much that we have learned in the last 50 years about caring for the dolphins, about the inner workings of their society and their relationships with each other, as well as about anatomy and about how dolphins actually work," said Stacey.
Melissa Zabojnik is a senior keeper at the Seven Seas exhibit. She has been working with dolphins for 10 years, and helps show the mammals to the public.
"We can use the dolphins as ambassadors to teach the public," said Zabojnik. "The zoo’s mission is to inspire conservation leadership, so that’s something that we try to portray in our dolphin shows as well."
The Zoo’s conservation efforts were tested during last year’s Gulf Oil spill. The Chicago Zoological Society’s Dolphin Research Center in Sarasota Florida, a sister facility, saw some changes in the dolphin population in the Gulf.
Zabojnik said their history with the mammals is helping them track the long term environmental effects of the disaster. "Because we’ve gotten to know these animals so well in the past, it helps us in the future by determining if the oil spill has any effect on the future of them….. where the animals spend their time, if they migrate for any reason, if there’s any difference of their health and population year after year because of the oil spill."
The Brookfield Zoo now works with six other U.S. facilities that also are away from coastlines. Together, they promote a better understanding of the world under the sea.