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

"When it comes to stranded animals, we put differences aside," says Art Cooper, a key diplomat in the dolphin wars. Bill Ballenberg
Russ Rector (in eyepatch with Marine Mammal Conservancy members Spencer Slate and December Lauretano) has often found himself at the center of controversy. Bill Ballenberg
"I can be very forceful," says commercial diver Rick Trout, a veteran agitator in the long-running Florida Keys dolphin controversy. "I have a voice that scares children and animals." Bill Ballenberg
"I can Monday-morning quarterback, but no one knew that [starvation killed the animals] until after they were dead," says beleaguered rescue leader Becky Arnold." Bill Ballenberg

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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