Handling and Medical Treatment in a New-Born Bottlenose Dolphin
IAAAM 1994
Dr. Geraldine Lacave, Veterinarian
Dolphinarium Brugge, Brugge, Belgium

During the second MMHCW (Marine Mammal Health Care Workshop) on artificial roaring, in Brugge, with Jay Sweeney a guest speaker, it had been discussed that the reproductive age for a female Tursiops should be 12 years old. The age of the mother is an important fact op for the chances of a calf and when looking at Facilities where babies died after a few days, in many cases it comes out that the mother was too young. It was also said during that workshop that a wound in the first days of its existence can be fatal for a calf. It is known that there is no transfer of immunity through the placenta in dolphins, they receive their first passive immunity by the milk. It is thus very important that they suckle in the first hours after the birth. Nevertheless they need some time to develop their own immunity in order to be able to fight against infections. At the beginning this immunity is quite weak and a wound is an open door for any kind of bacteria. By experience, many people can confirm that when they had a baby dolphin that had a wound at the very beginning, in 90% of the cases, the animal died within few days.

In the Brugge dolphinarium a 8 year old female Tursiops had been confirmed pregnant. The staff had decided that they wanted to give the calf an extra-chance, in case of a life birth, because, due to the age of the mother, it was thought that the baby wouldn't probably make it. The two former baby dolphins born in Brugge had died from a bacterial septicemia after a week.

Gorki a male bottlenose dolphin was born on Saturday 14 August 1993 at 07.13 in the medical pool where he was alone with his mother. She maintained him under the water for a while at the beginning and then looked very well after him, leading him in the pool and keeping him away from the walls. About 25 minutes after the birth, she lost control of him for fraction of a second and the baby swam through a gate in the canal leading to the show pool. The baby was caught and given back to his mother but, by swimming through that gate, he had made himself two nasty wounds on the head. A watch was established to control the respiratory rate of the baby, the first suckling period and the expulsion of the placenta. The wounds on the head of the baby were extra negative factors in his survival chances. The special handling and medical treatment would be to take the baby out of the water every day, give him an antibiotic injection to protect against a possible infection, weigh him, to see if he was gaining weight, take blood on a regular basis and put him back in the water.

Pro's and Contra's were Expressed

The contras were:

 The handling would have to happen in the middle of the summer season as all the people available are already overwhelmed with work.

 It is unknown how it would work out. The baby might still die after a while.

 The question of a potential stress for the baby. The author's opinion to this is that being taken out of the water for a very short period of time isn't a greater stress for a baby than discovering the world around him: the other animals, dolphins, seals and sea lions, the show performances, the music, the applause of the public. A baby doesn't know that being taken out of the water is something that normally doesn't happen. Very young animals have been handled in Sea Life Park, Hawaii, in Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Washington and in Gulfarium, Florida, without too much problem.

 The technique for taking the baby out of the water was still to be found out. Would the net be used? Or the lift? Will the mother be caught at the same time? How would the mother react? How would the baby react?

The pros were:

 The baby will probably have few chances of survival given the young age of the mother and the wounds on his head.

 It might work.

It was eventually decided to at least give a try and work with the nets.

Description of the Method

Two trainers are in the water, two other trainers are on both sides of the pool, slowly pulling a net, so to gently diminish the place where the mother and the baby can swim. Two ropes are attached at the bottom of the net at the bottom of the pool and two other persons are holding those recipes. When the net is close enough to the edge of the pool, it is hauled up in the form of a cup with the mother and baby on top of it. When the net is high enough, the two trainers that are in the water can walk on it. The net is being held by four persons. One trainer is supposed to hold the mother while the other is catching the baby and hands him to a person waiting at the side of the pool. This method worked better and quicker than expected.

Baytril, IM, was chosen as medication because it has a large spectrum and it is quite a safe antibiotic. At the beginning the shot was given to the baby while still in the trainer's arms. Later on a foam bed was used. The first times the baby was taken out of the water he was really tensed and shaking. His fluke movements made the weighing a little difficult. His stress diminished every day and after a while it seemed alright for him and he was breathing very normally when outside. His first time out of the water was one minute, he was six hours old, weighed 14.3 kg and measured 1.05 m. A close watch was installed this first time but he behaved normally.

When the trainers were catching the baby and holding the mother, this one showed no signs of aggressiveness towards them. Sometimes, when they weren't quick enough to hold the net up, the mother would come back rushing over it to take her baby away, but never in an aggressive way. This made the whole trial a lot easier.

On the third day, the mother jumped over the net, leaving her baby in the hands of a trainer but closely looking from behind the net at what was being done. On the 4th, 5th, 6th day and so on she did the same. It was precisely as if she knew that the baby was going to be taken out of the water but that he would very quickly be rendered to her. It was probably more comfortable for her to wait outside the net than trapped in it. But she was always looking very carefully at what was being done. After a while, when the mother jumped over the net, it wasn't necessary anymore to haul the net up. The trainer would just go after the baby once the mother was gone and catch him. She would usually swim to the place where he was put back in the water and where she could see him, and she would wait.

Once the baby was handed to the holder out of the water, the "medical team" would hurry with him and would take no longer notice of the mother, the trainers in the water, the net etc. The idea was to keep the baby for the shortest time possible out of the water. The habit was taken to first weigh him, trying to always have the same person to carry him, and then put him on a thick piece of foam with a depression in the middle to give his antibiotic shot.

Blood was taken for the first time when he was one week old to have an idea of how long antibiotic would have to be given. This time he stayed a little longer than 3 minutes out. He was peeling a lot, especially on his fluke where pieces of skin were falling, but with time he just seemed to make a new skin. Eventually he received this antibiotic treatment for 16 days, he was weighed every day until he was three weeks old and then every two days. Blood was taken on a regular basis.

His wounds on the head and rostrum were healing well. His weight was increasing, not from day to day, but the general curve was going up. When he was two months old and 35 kg, the weighing was stopped.

With time, the baby swam faster and faster and it started to be difficult for a trainer, even with fins, to catch him in one trial. Then the mother started to lay over the net and teach the baby to jump over it. It was also getting pretty heavy for the one in the water to lift the baby over his/her head and hand it to the person outside.

It was then decided to use the lift. The baby, once the mother had jumped over the net, would be lead in the corner where lays the gate towards the lift. The dolphins normally have to swim under water to enter the lift, a frame being at the surface. A trainer would catch the baby and swim with him under water through the gate into the lift. The floor of the lift was already elevated at the lower level of the gate. The trainer would then hold the baby until the floor had reached the surface. It worked alright.

Once the blood taken, the lift would be lowered, one trainer staying with the baby in the water but not holding him. The gate was open and his mother was waiting for him just on the other side of the gate. The first time he needed to be gently pushed out but then he did it on his own.

The mother also received some medication. Amoxicillin is always given in the Brugge dolphinarium for about 10 days after a birth. Immuno-stimulants were given to the mother hoping that they would have a positive effect on the baby through the milk. These were:

 Broncho-vaxom: A bacterial lyophilisated lysate of different bacteria (Klebsiella, Diplococcus, Haemophilus,

 Staphylo, Strepto, Neisseria): In animals it increases the resistance to experimental diseases by stimulating the macrophages and increasing the secretion of immuno-globulins (mainly IgA) in the respiratory system, and

 Isoprinosine: this substance stimulates the immunity reaction when this one is depressed. It mainly works on the cell mediated immunity, mainly on the macrophages and lymphocytes T. This medication was also given during 10 days.

The baby was checked for candida, which he started to have at about two weeks of age, probably as a result of the Baytril treatment.

When Gorki was three months old another question raised a possible Erysipelas infection. It was common knowledge that as long as a baby isn't on fish diet, he cannot catch the disease, as it is thought that this one is transmitted by contaminated fish.

It was advised not to vaccinate under a year of age because they couldn't catch the disease before anyway. In the Brugge dolphinarium a seven months old baby Tursiops that wasn't eating yet, neither really playing with fish, died in three hours from an Erysipelas septicemia. Would once or twice a contact with a contaminated fish be enough to transmit the disease? Where else would it have come from? Having had that bad experience the author was afraid that it could even happen earlier in the existence of an animal. It was decided to vaccinate the baby dolphin at a much earlier age, even knowing that there might be some risks. Gorki was vaccinated when he was three months old. Blood had been taken the day before to check if everything was alright and is still taken regularly to control the effect of vaccination (once every month).

This is the purpose of the research on the effects of vaccination currently done at the Gent Veterinarian University in association with the Brugge dolphinarium. it is necessary to learn as much as possible on Erysipelas vaccination as this disease can be so fatal for dolphins. Until now, because the effect of vaccination is unknown, because the protective level of antibodies is also unknown, because there have been some deaths as a result of anaphylactic chock following this vaccination, some facilities do vaccinate, others do not. Dr. Cox from the Gent University has developed a new ELISA test to test the dolphins sera for Erysipelas antibodies, helped for this by Dr. Neylan Vedros' former results on the same subject. He has received the brands found in the vaccine available in Belgium from the firm itself and also some brands from Dr. Neylan Vedros. Brands have also been isolated from the blood of the seven months old animal that died from this disease. They were used as basis for this test. The purpose of this research is first to find out how the antibody titer evolves after vaccination and secondly to make a test as specific as possible for Erysipelas antibodies and eliminate the cross-reactions. Further works on memory cells are also planned. The idea is to test as many sera as possible from different places with different vaccination and no-vaccination backgrounds.

The decision has recently been taken in the Brugge dolphinarium to try to repeat the experience with the next baby dolphin and to gather information about the immunity situation at a very young age.

Speaker Information
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Geraldine Lacave, DVM

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