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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What happened next—or didn’t happen, as the case may be—is at the core of the dispute. Five days after the discovery of the dead male, Arnold returned and observed that the lone calf appeared to be nursing, and the others were swimming and breathing normally. A more thorough health assessment— which involves capturing a dolphin to sample its blood and perform other tests—would have been risky and didn’t seem warranted, she says. Besides, she and other approved rescuers require special permission to capture a free-swimming dolphin. Even then, there’s no guarantee of success. “If I get a bunch of volunteers and throw nets in the water and drown these dolphins, that would be a problem,” she says.

For their part, the Sleepers say that the pod members showed clear signs of growing weaker in the days after they found the dead male. Still, they spent hours swimming with the animals. But they and other advocates later argued that rescuers should have aided the animals before it was too late.

Within two weeks after the first dolphin turned up dead, the rest of the pod—all five—died of starvation, according to autopsy reports.

Janet Whaley, a veterinarian and toxicologist who is the coordinator of the National Stranding Network at NMFS, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, was aware of a problem at Big Pine Key and says she was ready to respond. But the animals, she was told at the time, seemed capable of swimming back out to sea, and so a risky in-thewater rescue was not called for. “This is a very sensitive species,” she says, “and they were in a canal near open water.”

Gretta Sleeper, home in Texas, was shocked by the news of the dolphins’ demise. “I cried for three days,” she says. “It was like I’d made best friends and found out they’d died one week later. I felt so powerless and so mad.”

It would be hard to pick a more colorful backdrop for this drama than the Florida Keys, the archipelago of 1,800 islands that dangles from the mainland like an afterthought. The region is also known as the Conch Republic, so dubbed by the then-mayor of Key West in 1982 when he declared, only half in jest, that the Keys would secede from the United States.But for many citizens of this self-styled republic, who take pride in their feisty independence, dolphins are a more apt emblem than the conch, a pink-shelled mollusk no longer in abundance in these waters. People gather at shorelines and canal banks and at five marine parks in the Keys to watch dolphins gambol, and dolphin advocacy groups are almost as common as bonefishers.

Yet if feelings about dolphins run deep, they certainly don’t run in the same direction.There are dolphin advocates whose earnestness suggests they prefer the marine mammal to their own species. There are those who try to balance the animal’s “rights” against the desire of scientists and the public to get closer to them. And there are those who don’t see what all the fuss is about. “Dolphin?” an old salt at the Schooner Wharf Bar in Key West was heard to muse. “It tastes a lot like manatee. Like bald eagle, only not as stringy.”

Gretta Sleeper might have let the Big Pine Key incident rest had she not made contact with Russ Rector and Rick Trout, dolphin trainers-turned-activists who are among the most unyielding— some say hostile—animal activists in the SunshineState.

Rector, 54, betrays the zeal of a convert. Beginning at age 21, he worked for seven years at Ocean World, a marine mammal park in Fort Lauderdale. He gradually came to believe that dolphin trainers used cruel methods—including punishment and hunger, he says—to make the animals do tricks. In time he went over to the other side, forming the Dolphin Freedom Foundation and pressuring Ocean World to shut its doors, which it did in 1995. “I closed it down,” Rector boasts. He says he was once arrested by federal agents after attempting to stop a U.S. Navy underwater demolition test in waters near the Keys, which he argued would harm sea animals, especially dolphins. With a black eyepatch and beard, he has a piratical air. “You don’t meet too many one-eyed guys with vision,” he jokes. “I’m not a bunny hugger. I had the luck to work with dolphins, and I’m just trying to pass on what I know.”

Perhaps inevitably, Rector made common cause with Rick Trout, 51, a onetime dolphin handler at the Flipper Sea School (now the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key) who says he went on to train dolphins for the U.S. Navy. In 1988, Trout alleged in newspaper and TV news interviews that the Navy was mistreating its dolphins.

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