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Dolphin Habitat gets new inhabitant

When young Jacob Knipfer arrived at The Mirage’s Dolphin Habitat Monday afternoon, he didn’t expect to see a 3-day-old dolphin swimming next to its mother.

It was the first baby dolphin 8-year-old Jacob had seen — on TV or in person.

“It’s awesome,” said Jacob, who was visiting from Anchorage, Alaska with his family. “Every move its mom makes, it copies it.”

Eleven-year-old Taylor Rieger from Bryan, Texas, peered over the railing to get a peek at the little dolphin.

“It’s cute,” she said.

About 10:40 p.m. Friday night, “Duchess” flipped over in her tank at The Mirage’s Dolphin Habitat and, belly-up, gave birth to a pair of tiny fins, followed by a long, slender body and a small snout.

The roughly 25-pound calf then scrambled to the surface for his first breath, and now members of the public can view him swimming alongside his mother in one of the habitat’s pools at The Mirage.

Officials at the habitat are “cautiously confident” that the newborn will survive to adulthood.

Duchess, who is roughly 30 years old, is an experienced mother with six births to her name, according to the habitat’s curator, Jim Hudson.

Hudson and veterinarians at the habitat have been watching the baby around the clock, and will continue to do so for about a month.

Because successful births in captivity are rare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t consider a birth successful until a newborn survives for three months.

Hudson said the early signs are good — the calf has been breathing and nursing regularly. They haven’t weighed or handled him, and won’t do so over the next few months unless they need to intervene for his health.

The new addition doesn’t have a name yet, but officials plan to hold a contest later this year asking Clark County School District students to name him.

On Monday, the calf was following in his mother’s wake, swimming clockwise around the pool and coming up for air with her every 30 seconds or so. Occasionally, he would swim away from her for a few feet, then scurry back when he seemed to realize he was drifting.

Christie Hicks, a veterinarian at the habitat, said the newborn’s behavior was dominant like his mother, who assumes the role as the leader of the habitat’s four other dolphins.

“It’s a lot like in the wild,” she said. “You can definitely see their personalities.”

The baby will grow about a pound a day for about six months, when he will likely start eating fish.

The other male dolphins in the exhibit, including the baby’s father, 22-year-old “Lightning,” are being kept in other pools because they’re younger and more “rambunctious,” Hudson said.

But habitat officials are keeping a 10-year-old female in the tank with Duchess and her baby so that the younger female, “Sage,” can learn about the birthing and caring process.

Dolphins get better at giving birth and raising babies the older they get, Hudson said.

Duchess has passed the 25-year-old average lifespan for dolphins kept in captivity, but they’ve been known to give birth into their 40s. Habitat officials expect Duchess to continue to have babies.

The Mirage has come under criticism from some animal welfare advocates because 11 of the 16 dolphins housed at the habitat have died since it opened in 1990. Critics say dolphins shouldn’t be kept in habitats like The Mirage’s.

Officials at The Mirage say the hotel-casino took the initiative to invite outside experts to examine the facility and that federal officials looked at the situation and found nothing wrong.

The habitat is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Ticket prices are $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 4 to 12. There is no charge for children 3 and younger.

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