Caring for a Geriatric Animal (Dinghy)

Posted by Hunter A Kinney on Sep 26, 2020 12:00:00 AM

Dinghy. Ding-a-ling. Ding. Ding-dong. Mother. 


Our amazing Dinghy was one of the original 12 dolphins that gave Dolphins Plus, Inc. it's start back in 1980.  When Dolphins Plus opened their doors, Dinghy was one of the founding dolphins to interact with guests (quite-literally) since before some of her current trainers were even born. Over the years, we've watched Dinghy grow into the matriarch of our pod, become the exceptional mother of 6 calves, and train countless human trainers, all the while making them look very foolish. And now, we're watching Dinghy transition to a new part of her life... her geriatric years. 

Bottlenose dolphins live on average between 20 and 50 years old. Under human care, some dolphins have surpassed this life expectancy, but dolphins living beyond their mid-50s are rare. Dinghy is around 43 years old, and despite her old(er) age, Dinghy is still Ding. She is still lovable when she wants to be. Energetic when the time is right. Wise and witty. A fantastic mother to her youngest calf, Tug. None-the-less, how we manage Dinghy's care evolves with her age. 

KL & Ding

Ding has a primary training team of three trainers; Hunter, Kayla, and Brooke. Her team works very closely alongside their Supervisor Luke, the Vet team, and fellow trainers to make Dinghy as happy and healthy as possible in her geriatric years. 

The "Happy" Part 

We can't get into Dinghy's mind (although we would give our left arm to do so if we could), but we can read Dinghy's behavior to make judgements on the things Dinghy seems to enjoy or is comfortable with and other things that Dinghy no longer finds reinforcing. 

(Above: Kayla one of Ding's primary trainers)

Ding is no longer the matriarch of the pod and tends to take a more submissive role within the social group. That said, dolphin social structures are fluid and change throughout the day, the week, the month, and over the years. Her caretakers are well versed in reading Dinghy's body language to figure out which dolphins Ding is most comfortable working with, which dolphins she REALLY likes working with, and which dolphins she would rather not be paired with for a session. These judgements help us make plans that will be successful for Ding and of course keep her mentally stimulated, well cared for, and "happy". 

In recent years, her caretakers have observed that Dinghy seems to respond best to routines and patterns. Typically, our training philosophy involves maintaining a large list of behaviors in each animals' repertoire, while being as variable as possible with training sessions, social pairings, the type of reinforcement we use, the schedule of reinforcement, and changing their day so that they never know what to expect. This training protocol is reinforcing to most dolphins in our population. Dinghy, however, seems to enjoy patterns, a more predictable routine, and maintaining a smaller list of behaviors. We've found that by keeping her interaction behaviors limited to the behaviors she finds naturally reinforcing and being very clear with what we are asking of her, she is more likely to succeed in the behavior. Further, certain patterns or "chains" of behaviors help Dinghy as well. Our theory is that by removing some of the variability, Dinghy has more confidence in what behavior to do. We believe part of this is related to her limited eye sight and are happy to cater our training style to whatever is most successful for Dinghy. 

IMG_3939No amount of training will prevent Dinghy from being Dinghy, and we love that!
(That's her doing the opposite behavior of the other dolphins... because why not?)

This doesn't mean we can't use variability with Dinghy, it just means we choose to be variable in different areas, such as how we deliver her fish, or whether we snuggle her after a behavior or get in the water with her, or where her secondary trainer is located in the lagoon. 

Basically, our team is constantly observing Dinghy's behavior and putting extra attention to providing a stimulating environment where she can thrive. 

The "Healthy" Part 

Similar to humans, as dolphins age different health challenges present themselves. Our veterinary philosophy is rooted in preventative care which is why all of our dolphins receive extra fresh water in their diet, routine ultrasounds, and periodic diagnostic samples (like bloods, urine, and fecal samples).

96533205_2704365779693175_1734267223863721984_oEvery day, Dinghy receives 4L of hydration through a voluntary hydration behavior. At-least once every two months we obtain a voluntary blood sample. At-least once a month, Dinghy will have an ultrasound. All throughout the year, Dinghy will participate in gastric samples, fecal samples, urine samples, and will even cough on a signal for what we call a "chuff" sample. She even gets all 88 of her teeth brushed daily!

All of these behaviors and samples provide glimpses into the underlying health of Dinghy and the vets routinely utilize this information to update Ding's supplement/medication regimen. We cannot force Dinghy to provide any of these samples to us, we can only ask for them voluntarily, so her training team concentrates a-lot of time and energy into keeping these behaviors reinforcing for Ding. Through this training method, we can get a voluntary medical sample whenever we need from Dinghy, and given her age, these samples are extra important. 

Beyond her overall health, Dinghy is being treated for a chronic eye condition. Ding has lost all vision in her left eye and has only partial vision in her right eye. Because dolphins have echolocation, Dinghy can still do most of the behaviors she has always done despite her vision impairment. Maintaining her remaining vision is a top-priority for the veterinary team and Ding's medical management plan. Ding  currently receives three separate eye drops to support her ocular health. 


Because of the special attention Dinghy receives from her training team in relation to learning and maintaining healthcare behaviors, Ding has successfully learned to allow and participate in a voluntary gastric scope. During this procedure, the vet team passes a scope into the first chamber of Dinghy's stomach and can visualize (better than on ultrasound) the first part of her digestive system. In recent years, Ding has had periodic gastric conditions which have been diagnosed, treated, and subsequently monitored because of the voluntary scope behavior. 

Collectively, her healthcare program has become more important than ever in her old age. The fact that Dinghy participates in this program voluntarily means that we really can provide the best care for her. With any luck, we will still have Dinghy around for years to come thanks to the advancements in marine mammal medicine over the last 30 years. 

Always Ding


Keeping all of our animals both happy and healthy is a cornerstone of providing for their overall welfare. Caring for a geriatric animal continually presents our team with its own special challenges, which we welcome with open arms. After all, these animals depend on us for their care, which is something we promise to provide for them for the rest of their lives. 

This year's pandemic has led to about a 40% decline in revenue which is necessary for providing care to our dolphin family, and therefore DPMMR is relying on gifts from our supporters to continue providing the best care possible for our animals, including Dinghy.

Any support you can offer is appreciated:

Topics: Dolphins in Key Largo, Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, Animal Welfare, Newsletter

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