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Ilse the dolphin at Loro Parque enjoying some jello. The majority of dolphins seem to find jello reinforcing and will often play with it. However jello has an additional benefit for the animals: it’s an alternative source of hydration thought to promote wellbeing. In the wild dolphins get all their water from metabolizing fat in the fish they eat. In human care the fish dolphins eat are flash frozen on the boats they are caught on and kept in this rock-solid state until the day the day they are fed. The morning before feeding fish is moved from a freezer to a refrigerator and then the day of it is thawed in cold running water. Despite this methodical process some water may be lost in the fishes’ tissues so additional water is added to the dolphin’s diets through various means, the funnest of which is this unflavored gelatin. Most dolphins get excited at the very sight of the stuff - it’s a great way to keep them healthy and happy! 

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Headlines were made earlier this year when it was announced that a “secret” dolphin facility was under construction deep in the Arizona desert. Several animal rights activist groups were quick to condemn the very idea of the facility, creating petitions and protesting with the slogan: “dolphins don’t belong in the desert.” 

But what does this phrase really mean? These animals obviously aren’t going to be thrown into a sand dune nor are they going to be fed a diet of fresh frozen cacti. In reality the dolphins aren’t going to be interacting with much outside of their 925,000 gallon habitat. Moreover this state-of-the-art enclosure was built quite creatively to ensure that the desert stays far away from the dolphins’ little oasis. Several shade structures have been built to protect surfacing dolphins from prolonged exposure to the harsh Arizona sun. And about those ridiculous desert temperature swings, well the dolphin habitat has both heaters and chillers to keep it comfortably within the 70′s all year long. But let’s not forget about the coolest aspect of this habitat: Dolphinaris Arizona will be one of the first dolphin exhibits with pools that can be transformed from indoors to outdoors and back again. Two of the pools in the habitat can be enclosed with the help of a sliding glass panel, thus ensuring that the dolphins are safe from climate hazards such as severe dust storms. In many ways, the dolphins in this facility will be in better shape than those in environments closer to their home range, such as the hurricane-prone Floridian coast. 

So what does the phrase “dolphins don’t belong in the desert” really mean after all? Considering the fact that this new habitat has been designed to keep its resident animals cool, wet and comfortable, I’m not quite sure. We have to face it, the location of this facility isn’t going to be affecting these animals’ welfare. Instead, it’s a rather ingenious method of connecting a population hundreds of miles from the coast with an ocean strangled by the run-off of their green, sparkling suburbs. CO2 emissions pumping out of cars deep in the heart of Arizona are making their way to the sea and mixing with saltwater, bleaching corals and dissolving the shells of countless oceanic creatures. It’s hip Scottsdale restaurants and run-of-the-mill grocery stores, along with their counterparts across the country, whose insatiable desire for seafood are depleting fish populations thousands of miles away. So if this new dolphin facility turns a few Arizona kids destined to be accountants into future marine biologists or makes a few Scottsdale retirees develop a passion for sustainable living, we’ll see that this location is more of a bonus than a drawback. Rather than “not belonging in the desert,” it seems that the dry, hot Arizona desert is the perfect home for a pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.