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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He and others claimed that the Navy tested dolphin “missiles” equipped with lethal carbon dioxide charges or bullets that would kill enemy scuba divers—and in the process, the dolphins. The Navy denies that Trout ever worked for the service, saying that a private defense contractor in San Diego employed him as a sea lion trainer and that he once participated in a Navy exercise in which dolphins served as sentinels, not missiles. “The Navy does not now train, nor has it ever trained, any marine mammals to serve as offensive weapons,” says Tom LaPuzza, spokesman for the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program.

For much of the ’90s, Trout worked as a dolphin rescue volunteer for the Marine Mammal Conservancy, a Key Largo-based organization that was authorized to respond to strandings because of its ties to Arnold’s Key West organization. (One group with authorization can extend the privilege to another.) But political differences between Trout and Arnold’s group widened, so Arnold withdrew the authorization privilege and effectively blocked the conservancy from conducting rescues.

Arnold’s action was only the latest twist in the perpetually baroque politics of dolphin rescue in Florida, but it set the tone for what was to come at Big Pine Key. By then, there were plenty of hard feelings to go around, and plenty of people in a mood to place blame when those six animals turned up dead.

After word of the incident spread, Trout checked it out and got in touch with the Sleepers in Texas, who then contacted Rector for details on how to lodge an official complaint. In December, the Sleepers did just that, writing to the NMFS that “nothing had been done for this pod of dolphins except to collect their dead remains. If this is the procedural system that the current Marine Mammal Laws outline, the system is obviously not working!”

The question of how to respond to stranded dolphins is further complicated by an emotional debate over the ethics of keeping dolphins in captivity. In the past, rescued dolphins were not always returned to the sea but were placed in marine parks or facilities where people can swim with the animals. Radical activists decried the practice, saying that dolphins in distress should be treated and returned to the wild. They believe that cetaceans— whales, dolphins and porpoises—are highly intelligent and that to confine a wild dolphin is tantamount to slavery.

Despite compelling evidence that dolphins communicate with one another, perhaps even by name, not all marine biologists agree that dolphins and other cetaceans are especially smart. Though a dolphin has an impressive ability to be trained to perform tricks, skeptics say that this behavior reflects not intelligence—the capacity to make choices based on weighing possible consequences—but conditioning, a programmed response to a stimulus like food. In that view, dolphins are no more intelligent than dogs, horses or, for that matter, parrots. In addition, notions about dolphins’ exceptional intelligence have been based on the observation that they have disproportionately large brains. Again, some scientists point out that the animal’s brain is likely wired chiefly for sonar processing and motor control, not “thinking.”

In the Keys, at any rate, the old battle lines over dolphin captivity shaped the response to the Big Pine Key incident. Arnold says Trout has long tried to coopt dolphin rescue volunteers to his anti-captivity crusade. “Rick went on the anti-captivity trail and made a lot of enemies,” she says.Trout admits that he can be “very forceful,” adding, “I would not want to be on the other side of a disagreement with me or Russ.”

Trout and Rector also seized upon the Big Pine Key incident to publicize their belief that dolphin rescues are being botched. They claim that Trout’s group saved half of the stranded animals to which it responded—a far better record, they say, than that of other rescue groups.

But the activists have detractors. Among Trout’s is a former employer, the DolphinResearchCenter, which issued a blistering condemnation of his deeds. “Three decades of continuous eco-terrorist activities is enough for us to know that [the Marine Mammal Conservancy] and Rick Trout are a dangerous, impervious-to-regulations, egotistical, self-serving, slanderous group that is incapable of teamwork,” the center’s vice president, Mandy Rodriguez, wrote last December. “We do not negotiate on any level with a terrorist organization.”

In January, as tensions peaked, federal officials held a special meeting on Marathon Key to address the dolphin rescue quandary. Most of the central players were there, including Whaley, of the NMFS, who flew down from Washington.The Big Pine Key incident wasn’t the only item on the agenda, but it was a hot topic. “Some of the officials were very interested in why, when one dolphin died, something wasn’t done, and why, when two more died, something still wasn’t done,” says Robert Lingenfelser, a construction contractor and head of the Marine Mammal Conservancy.

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