During my interview with Corbin Maxey, he asked me what surprises have popped up in my zoo history research. My answer was not included in the final release of the interview; I answered that I was surprised about the extreme difficulty of caring for penguins in captivity until the late 1960s—too sad a topic to include in a fun podcast. Corbin told me that his zoo history surprise was that the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium exhibited an Amazon river dolphin (a species often called pink dolphin, or boto) for many years. River dolphins are a species rarely found in captivity, so I assured Corbin that I would further investigate this animal!
When we think of dolphins, we usually conjure up images of Flipper and the playful saltwater variety. Their freshwater cousins, however, are rarely portrayed in popular culture. River dolphins are smaller in order to propel through shallower water. They have tiny eyes, very flexible necks, longer snouts, and strong sonar to help snag fast-moving prey in muddy water. They are mostly concentrated in South American rivers, particularly the Amazon and Oronoco basins—with other species of river dolphins located in Asia (China and India). They are extremely rare in captivity even today, with only a few on exhibit around the world, mainly due to high mortality, aggression, and level of difficulty in training. Between 100 and 140 Amazon river dolphins were brought to the United States aquariums between the 1950s and the mid-1970s, and 90 percent of them lived only one to five years. Given this gram statistic, the story of Chuckles is an extremely remarkable one.
When Pittsburgh’s AquaZoo opened in 1967, it was the second largest aquarium in the country. To fill the tanks with attractive specimens, zoologists set out on a three-week “aquafari” to the upper Amazon River of Columbia. They returned to Pittsburgh in June 1967 via C-46 airplane with 11,000 pounds of fish, reptiles, and amphibians; 500 excited fans greeted them at the airport, along with an orchestra playing South American music and a motorcade waiting to escort the new Pittsburgh residents to their home.
The stars of the aquarium were predicted to be three Amazon river dolphins—two adults (one very pregnant) and a baby. Sadly, both adults died a few days after arriving at the aquarium, one of pneumonia and the other of an infection stemming from a harpoon wound. (The only other immediate deaths reported were three red-tailed catfish, so the overall fatality rate of the large shipment was quite low.) The baby, a six-month-old named Pinky, seemed to thrive initially—eating well, taking vitamins, and enjoying the company of her human keepers. Keeping this baby alive, the first baby to survive in captivity, was an all-hands-on-deck affair, with pathologists and dieticians from the local Magee-Womens Hospital assisting. After Pinky’s mother passed away, dieticians were able to obtain samples of her milk so that they could learn to simulate the high-fat, low-sugar formula that she required.
While Pinky was soaking up the attention, in August zoo officials acquired three companion Amazon porpoises, two females and a male, secured by fishermen a few weeks after the initial aquafari trip. Two dozen reporters were on hand for the initial introduction to their pool. Pinky was kept in a separate pool from the adults as she was received around-the-clock care. The behaviors of these creatures had not yet been understood, so they were not risking the larger adults hurting or killing the young dolphin.
The AquaZoo opened its doors on October 1, 1967. Aside from the porpoises, visitors were awed by the penguins, sharks, otters, electric eels, and rare specimens such as the tiger-fish (more vicious than piranhas) and South American gar. Zoo staff were quite proud of the health of the animals and smooth operation of the filtration systems of the $1.6 million facility. One newspaper article called the Amazon exhibit the only one of its kind in the world. The exhibit resembled their natural environment as closely as possible, and the thousands of visitors who showed up for the opening walked away super impressed.
Twelve days after the grand opening, baby Pinky’s fragile life ended. She had been dealing with an eye infection, but her care team suspected that pneumonia is what ultimately killed her. In 1970, seven more Amazon river dolphins arrived. Then in 1972 three Amazon River dolphins died after emergency digestive surgery at Magee-Womens Hospital. They had swallowed coins and other debris (even a rail spike) that had been thrown into their tank. Eventually, only one dolphin remained: Chuckles.
By the time Chuckles arrived in 1970, the zoo (in Pittsburgh as well as other zoos) had learned a very important lesson in keeping river dolphins healthy in captivity. Their natural environment is not a vast ocean but a shallower body of water. In a deep tank, the river dolphins, which do not float, were expending a tremendous amount of energy attempting to rise to the surface for air and had difficulty sleeping in the deep water. The stress on the body was making them more susceptible to illness. Chuckles, at 6′3″ and over 200 lbs, was moved to a much smaller, four-foot-deep tank with a sloped area where he could beach himself. The smaller living space upset visitors but no doubt contributed to his record-breaking longevity. Amazon river dolphins are also mostly solitary in the wild, so his single lifestyle also kept his stress level lower but made him a target of cries that he looked lonely.
By the 1980s Chuckles was only one of two Amazon river dolphins living in U.S. aquariums—the other was Buster in Niagara Falls, New York. After Buster passed away around 1987, Chuckles was the only living freshwater dolphin in captivity in North America. He had outlived them all.
Although his species was generally believed to be less intelligent than their ocean-dwelling cousins, Chuckles proved extremely smart, and keepers started to notice that he would invite interaction with humans. He engaged visitors, particularly children, in play, and his care team would occasionally swim with him. After 15 years in captivity, it was time to use this rare opportunity to formally study him.
In 1982, when Chuckles developed a severe case of gout around his pectoral fins and required treatment, trainers started entering his pool and interacting with him on a more routine physical level. That April, after a University of Pittsburgh student who worked with Chuckles as well as marine dolphins noticed his aptitude for learning, thirteen trainers became involved in an intensive training program (23 other trainers were on a waiting list). Throughout his daily regimen, Chuckles learned more than a dozen routines, including tossing and fetching balls and frisbees, swimming through hoops (freshwater dolphins do not jump like the ocean dwellers), shaking with his fin, rolling over, and jump-hugging humans. With thirteen of them, not every trainer gave the dolphin a command in the exact same way, but he figured out what they wanted anyway. He was also a perfectionist, often re-performing a behavior if he wasn’t pleased with the initial attempt. AquaZoo director Randy Goodlett noted that Chuckles’ mental well-being had improved dramatically as well. “Before the training Chuckles was very blasé, just moping around in his tank. Now, he’s like a puppy. He looks forward to the training sessions.” By the time of his death, he knew over 30 behaviors.
Amazon river dolphins are born gray and tend to become pinker in color as they get older, or as they become more excited. Perhaps a trick, perhaps not, Chuckles appeared to be able to change his coloring from pink to gray at will. “Chuckles can go pink. He can go gray. He can go so gray that there’s no pink on his body. He can be slightly pink. He can be brilliant pink. If they do have emotions, it might be tied into that. It might be vascular. It could be diet and old age,” Goodlett suggested.
Chuckles was well trained, but that didn’t mean he was always on his best behavior. In 1990 he bit a zoo volunteer while she rubbed his belly with a brush. He was in “reproductive stage,” a time when aggressive behavior tends to peak in males. The volunteer required stitches on her finger, but claimed that Chuckles was still her buddy and would continue to work with him. The volunteer eventually sought $50,000 in damages from the zoo and won, but in 1996 the decision was overturned; the zoo was ultimately found not at fault. Chuckles also bit one of his trainers on the hand and leg during a training session in 1993, again while he was in reproductive stage. Three years later he bit a female visitor who, attempting to pet him, stuck her hand in his exhibit though a screen barrier while shouting his name. The zoo had to remind visitors that Chuckles was not dangerous, but he was a wild animal.
Every single trainer was bit. I was bit. He got me good a couple of times on the fingers. —Randy Goodlett, AquaZoo director
Chuckles’ popularity helped bring awareness to the plight of his species in the wild. In 1986, a group of Pittsburgh conservationists, as part of the California-based “Pink Dolphin Project,” journeyed to Brazil to help save around 150 Amazon river dolphins that had become trapped in dammed areas that were drained for irrigation during the dry season. As their situation became dire, the dolphins were transported to lakes and undammed streams. (The previous year, 200 river dolphins perished from starvation and sun exposure during the dry season.) To prepare for the trip, volunteers studied Chuckles to learn how to care for and handle the species for safe transport. The efforts to save the trapped river dolphins became a yearly project.
Chuckles lived out his final few years in a new home. In 2000, a newly renovated $17 million AquaZoo was opened (and renamed PPG Aquarium). The entire space was twice the size as the former iteration, and Chuckles was transferred to a customized pool five times the size of his previous home.
Chuckles died two years later on February 20, 2002, at the elderly age of 34. (Buster, the oldest Amazon river dolphin in captivity prior to him lived to the age of 23, so Chuckles smashed the longevity record for his species.) Pittsburgh had lost its smiley treasure. A makeshift memorial of flowers, photos, letters, and other mementos adorned the aquarium. One of his trainers added her whistle. Asked if the zoo would replace him with another river dolphin, a spokesperson said they would not. He was irreplaceable—their miracle dolphin.
On a wintry day our two sons, then about 6 and 10, and I were alone in front of Chuckles’ tank when he threw a ball out to us. We immediately threw it back, and this catch game went on for some minutes to the delight of the kids. We just wanted to describe our experience, which shows how intelligent and playful Chuckles was. —Radmilla Raikow, Pittsburgh resident (“Mourning Chuckles.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 23, 2002)
Today only three Amazon river dolphins exist in captivity—one each at Acuario de Valencia (Venezuela), Zoologico de Guistochoca (Peru), and the Duisburg Zoo (Germany). The Dallas World Aquarium attempted to acquire them in the mid-1990s as the main attraction of their new facility. However, the plan to capture them was strongly opposed by citizens, federal agencies, and advocacy groups and ultimately abandoned. In the wild, the Amazon river dolphin population is considered endangered and declining due to habitat loss (deforestation), commercial fishing, hydroelectric dam construction, and toxic mercury from gold mining. The largest effort to conserve the species occurred in 2012 when Bolivian president Evo Morales signed a law that banned fishing river dolphins and declared the species a national treasure; Brazil enacted a similar law in 2015. Additionally, the organization World Animal Protection has created a “Boto Guardians” program to help educate locals and enforce fishing laws. The Guardians number 300,000, and an estimated 1,600 river dolphins have been saved from illegal hunting through the organization’s efforts.
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