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Incident at Big Pine Key

A pod of dolphins stranded in the Florida Keys reignites an emotional debate over how much human "help" the sea mammals can tolerate

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The water was as murky as memory, but mark and Gretta Sleeper strapped on their fins, face masks and snorkels and eased into a canal on Big Pine Key, Florida, 120 miles south of Miami. Soon the vacationing couple heard clicking sounds, the sonarlike system marine mammals use to navigate. Sure enough, several adult dolphins and a calf swam into view.Gretta thought she detected a motif in the chatter—a few plaintive notes sounded over and over. It was Mark who saw the object of the animals’ apparent attentions, a dolphin lying motionless on the bottom. He dived down and found that the dolphin was dead.

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The Sleepers train riding horses back home in Bellville, Texas, and it might be said that what they did next was because they are animal lovers. But a lot of people would have made the same telephone call that October day.It’s just that nobody could have predicted all the trouble it would stir up.

Over the next three months, the Sleepers found themselves at the center of a sometimes rancorous debate about the handling of dolphins in the Florida Keys. Tensions had been building for years as stalwart opponents disputed how to deal with sick or stranded dolphins, who can do it best and what to do with ailing dolphins once they’ve been rescued. Now, though, there would be fresh insults, allegations of harassment, threatened boycotts and peeved letters to newspapers. The controversy over wild dolphins that strand themselves would entangle not only local activists but also federal regulators. It would highlight the curiously passionate emotions that human beings hold for these wild creatures. And, perhaps most surprising of all, it would even do some good.

Scientists may debate the animal’s intelligence, but no one doubts that dolphins enchant. Their seeming cheerfulness, improbable smile and indecipherable cackle, their sociability and the way they appear to dote on their young have earned them a special place not only in our hearts but in our laws. Although most dolphin species are not endangered, they are all covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which was designed to prevent the theft of healthy animals and the mistreatment of stranded or hurt ones. Accordingly, a dolphin that has beached itself or is stranded outside its usual habitat can be approached only by a group with authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

As of last fall, only two organizations in the Keys were sanctioned by the NMFS to rescue wild dolphins, rehabilitate them and also return them to the sea. One was the Florida Keys Marine Mammal Rescue Team in Key West.

The group’s organizer, Becky Arnold, got the Sleepers’ call that day last fall. Arnold, 45, a veteran animal advocate with a passion for dolphins, drove the 30 miles north to Big Pine Key. There, with her volunteer helpers, she retrieved the eight-foot-long carcass. It was a male Atlantic spotted dolphin, Stenella frontalis, seldom found in the shallows of the Keys, where the familiar bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, predominates. Arnold, following standard procedure, arranged to have the carcass trucked to Miami for an autopsy at a federal fisheries laboratory, which has long gathered information on marine mammal deaths.

Normally, bottlenose and spotted dolphins live about 25 years, and some may live 50 years. (The longest-lived in the dolphin family, the killer whale, may live to nearly 90.) Dolphins’ longevity, combined with the hundreds of miles they travel and the long time they nurse their young—up to two years—contribute to the sympathy that people feel for stranded dolphins.

Last year, 214 dolphins were stranded in Florida. Out of 11 stranded in the Keys, 9 were alive at the time rescuers arrived. All died. Typically, though, most dolphins counted as stranded are already dead, complicating the question of whether strandings are on the rise. But Stephen McCulloch, a biologist at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida, says strandings have increased dramatically in a 156-mile-long area of the Atlantic coast that he and his coworkers monitor. Compared with the usual 25 to 30 instances a year, he says, more than 100 animals stranded themselves in 2001.

Scientists don’t understand all the reasons for strandings, but some causes are clear, such as when dolphins are rammed by boats, entangled by fishing gear, choked by plastic trash or poisoned by man-made chemicals. Then, too, there are animals suffering from infections and other ailments. Curiously, multiple dolphins sometimes are stranded together, according to Charley Potter and Jim Mead, marine mammalogists at the Smithsonian Institution who have been collecting and closely studying stranded marine animals since 1971. “Perfectly healthy animals may find themselves stranded because of strong social bonds,” Potter says. “The causes of these events are often more difficult to pinpoint, as only a few members of a pod may be ill or traumatized.”

At the time that Arnold collected the dolphin carcass at Big Pine Key and afterward, she checked on its podmates and didn’t see them in the canal. “I hoped they would simply go on with their lives,” she recalls.

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