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Smiler, biter and zoo star for 3 decades

Chuckles the Dolphin, C.1968-2002

Thursday, February 21, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Chuckles, the much beloved Amazon River dolphin with the perpetual smile and a natural penchant for biting trainers and a few unlucky visitors at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium, died yesterday afternoon.

Chuckles roams his territory at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 1999. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Click here for more photos of Chuckles

While that will sadden many who knew and visited him, the 34-year-old dolphin would have smiled because, well, he always seemed to be doing just that. It's how he got named in a public contest, shortly after coming to the zoo as a 2-year-old in 1970.

And it's how he won the hearts of generations of visitors at the old AquaZoo and became the 225-pound, 8 1/2 foot feature attraction of the zoo's new aquarium two years ago, in a special tank built just for him.

"He was a neat animal, very charismatic and quite unique," said Barbara Baker, zoo president and chief executive officer.

Chuckles' passing was mourned by his trainers but was not unexpected. Aquarium keepers had been closely monitoring the dolphin for two weeks, since they first noticed he was losing his appetite.

Yesterday afternoon, after closing the aquarium to the public, they lowered the water level of his tank to facilitate examinations, said Connie George, a zoo spokeswoman. Chuckles was in a sling, getting weighed and having blood work done when he died.

A routine necropsy, like an autopsy, was to be performed last night to determine the cause of death. Preliminary examinations by zoo veterinarians revealed kidney problems -- Chuckles had a history of those.

"He was a Pittsburgh celebrity," George said. "He lived 16 years longer than any other Amazon River dolphin in captivity and was the oldest living one that we know of."

Part of that celebrity came from using his teeth as he got older and matured sexually to enforce natural territorial instincts. He bit his trainers, a zoo volunteer and at least three AquaZoo visitors, including two in one week and one woman who pulled aside a safety screen to pet the animal.

"Every single trainer was bit," said Randy Goodlett, who was in charge of Chuckles and the old AquaZoo for 13 years until 1995. "I was bit. He got me good a couple of times on the fingers."

After one female zoo worker was grabbed and pulled into the tank by Chuckles in the early 1990s, the dolphin made headlines in the National Enquirer, Goodlett said, when the tabloid erroneously reported: "Dolphin tries to make love to a trainer."

Chuckles was the last survivor of more than 100 Amazon River dolphins brought into the United States by zoos and aquariums in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Despite their availability, the river dolphins did not do well in captivity. By 1982, when Goodlett was hired at the Pittsburgh Zoo, three of the four river dolphins there had died, as had almost all the others brought to the United States.

Goodlett said he started checking and found that most of the river dolphins were kept in big deep tanks, just like marine dolphins. The problem was that marine dolphins could float on the denser salt water when they slept, but river dolphins don't float in fresh water.

"By putting the animals in deep tanks they were forced to expend a lot of energy going to the surface for a breath and couldn't sleep very well," he said.

"That wouldn't kill them immediately, but it stressed them. We put Chuckles in a shallow tank where he could beach himself on a sloping bank, just like he would in his natural river habitat."

And Chuckles was not just another pretty face. It turned out he was smart too, learning a series of more than 30 behaviors -- from throwing a Frisbee to pushing a ball through a hoop to hitting a target -- that only marine dolphins had ever done before.

Baker said a collection of large South American freshwater fish will be installed in Chuckles' tank temporarily. The zoo has no plans to bring in another dolphin.

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