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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

The meeting wasn’t exactly Potsdam, but the old factions did reach a significant agreement: nobody wanted to ship ailing animals all the way to Miami for rehabilitation, lately the only recourse given that no long-term rehabilitation center exists in the Keys. So when the meeting ended and Whaley returned to Washington, a crucial question hung in the air: Would the Keys get its own dolphin hospital?

Lingenfelser’s group has long had the equipment to rescue and care for dolphins, including a trailer stocked with rescue gear such as an inflatable rubber boat; a natural lagoon for treating dolphins; and even local permits for the facility. What the group didn’t have was federal authorization, and the main reason for the snub, says Lingenfelser, was his affiliation with Trout.“Rick Trout has a gift,” he says, and, despite Trout’s abrasive ways, even his detractors acknowledge that few people work better in the water with dolphins.

Two developments in particular made resolution of the controversy possible. For one, Lingenfelser was in place to serve as a bridge between the rival extremes. He had ties not only to the radical Trout but also to Art Cooper, a curator at Dolphins Plus, a swim-withdolphins facility in Key Largo. Cooper, 33, says the ten dolphins kept in his care are happy and living on a diet of gourmet fish. “Only the best quality,” he says. “Sardines from Venezuela, herring from Nova Scotia, Canadian silverside, California mackerel.”

Then, in April, NMFS officials took a step that might appear trivial but in fact constituted a diplomatic breakthrough in the Dolphin Wars. The officials granted yet another cetacean advocacy group, the Marine Mammal Foundation of the Upper Keys—which Cooper runs—full authority not only to handle stranded or distressed dolphins but also to rehabilitate and return them to the sea. Then, Cooper extended his authorization to Lingenfelser’s organization, putting the Marine Mammal Conservancy back in the rescue business. And after local dolphin lovers donated thousands of dollars, Lingenfelser broke ground for a new dolphin clinic in Key Largo (scheduled to open next month). “I’m just happy that we’re authorized, and the animals are getting the help they need,” he says.

Even relations among the factions have improved. After a dwarf sperm whale washed up on Grassy Key last April, Trout and Lingenfelser got to the whale right away, but the animal died. Arnold congratulated the pair on their quick response. “That was surprising, and nice,” says Lingenfelser.

Mark and Gretta Sleeper are pleased with the developments that they set in motion.“We were just tourists—not involved with the political mess out there,” says Mark.Gretta says the struggle was worth it: “Those dolphins gave their lives for these changes.”

For Whaley, the incident at Big Pine Key underscores the animal’s peculiar hold on our imagination. Dolphins, she says, “bring out the best and the worst in people.”

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