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Outrage mounts over firing of Harbor Branch dolphin guru

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of March 27, 2014)
Photo of Stephen McCulloch

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute’s firing of marine mammal guru Stephen McCulloch over an incident involving a stranded dolphin, a winter storm with lightning, tearful children and the Sea Oaks swimming pool has dismayed and outraged the research and rescue community in Florida and around the world.

Letters of support for McCulloch, many expressing astonishment at Harbor Branch’s actions, have poured into the office of HBOI Interim Executive Director Megan Davis. Letters have also gone to top officials at Florida Atlantic University, which absorbed Harbor Branch in 2007, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“When I first heard about this, I was dumbfounded, I thought it was a hoax,” wrote John A. Knight, an internationally known zoo and wildlife consultant, one of more than 50 veterinarians, research scientists, marine mammal rescue professionals and organization leaders who have bombarded Davis with lengthy, heartfelt letters.

“Termination of this contract is a grossly disproportionate reaction to his misdemeanor. I also fail to see how it could be to the benefit of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, or its national or international reputation.”

The events that led to McCulloch being ejected from the program he built from the ground up began with a phone call he received on Dec. 28 informing him of a stranded dolphin on the beach at Sea Oaks. The call came to him because he is in charge of responding to dead or injured marine mammals along an extensive stretch of Florida’s east coast.

On call 24 hours a day, holiday weekends included, McCulloch raced to the scene, where he found a group of distressed adults and children gathered around a sick juvenile bottlenose dolphin.

Because of a declared Unusual Mortality Event for bottlenose dolphins due to morbillivirus along the Atlantic Coast, McCulloch knew the animal would have to be euthanized and tested for disease. In the meantime, until transport and other help arrived, his responsibility under his Stranding Agreement with National Marine Fisheries Service included treating the animal humanely and keeping bystanders safe.

People who were there say the situation was complicated by several fast moving storms that brought lightning, high winds and dangerous surf during the four-hour ordeal.

“What was happening was scary,” says Daina Savage, who was staying at her parents’ Sea Oaks home. “The storm came up suddenly, very cold, brutal, drenching, wind whipping. The sky got black and there was lightning. It was a storm that under normal circumstance you would run and get shelter. But no one was budging. Steve was trying to get people off the beach at the same time as he cared for the dolphin and tried to get in touch with his network, but everyone wanted to stay with the dolphin. Children on the beach refused to leave and their fingers and lips were turning blue.”

Unable to reach the National Marine Fisheries Service for advice or permission to take action, McCulloch decided to move the dolphin to a nearby heated Sea Oaks pool to get the children off the beach and soothe the animal which was showing signs of going into convulsions.

In the pool, the dolphin revived somewhat and McCulloch allowed the children to enter the pool as well, to warm up and continue their emotional connection with the dying animal.

Savage says the move “seemed like a brilliant strategy,” but it was a technical violation of McCulloch’s Stranding Agreement, which required him to get permission before placing a wild animal in a temporary holding pool.

McCulloch acknowledges he violated protocol by placing the animal in the swimming pool but says he was adhering to the more pressing part of his responsibilities by keeping people and the animal safe.

“Every stranding response is unique based on the species, animal’s condition, weather, personal, bystanders, etc.” University of Florida Aquatic Animal Health faculty member and doctor of veterinary medicine Craig A. Pelton wrote Davis a month after the vent. “Difficult decisions need to be made in difficult situations and sometimes the decisions made are not ideal or agreed on by everyone involved, but in this case no one was injured and the animal was treated humanely.”

“In this particular incident actions were complicated by bad weather and poor communications,” John Knight wrote. “It appears that Steve made the most of what circumstances allowed.”

Several people who were on the beach wrote to Davis after the event and before McCulloch was fired to commend his actions.

“Through this entire ordeal, I was so impressed with Mr. McCulloch’s handling of all of the factors in play: assuaging the concerns of animal welfare champions, educating children and keeping them out of harm’s way, continually monitoring the dolphin’s vital signs, communicating with his team. Indeed, Mr. McCulloch obviously knows how to take care of dolphins, but his public relations and emergency management skills were some of the most masterful I’ve seen,” Savage said in her letter.

Davis wrote back to Savage and others who praised McCulloch, thanking them for their letters and appreciation of McCulloch and inviting them to visit Harbor Branch.

A few days later, McCulloch was suspended from his position as Program Manager of FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute’s acclaimed Marine Mammal Program and ordered not to communicate with National Marine Fisheries Service to explain the circumstances of his actions.

National Marine Fisheries sent a letter in early January announcing a 30 day suspension of HBOI from the marine mammal rescue network, but, significantly, noted that the suspension would have to be served at some undetermined future time because the services being provided by McCulloch, Goldstein and others at HBOI were too valuable to dispense with during a disease outbreak.

Fisheries also put HBOI’s program on probation for a year, which, in the opinion of several knowledgeable sources, amounted to “a slap on the wrist.”

Fisheries in no way called for or suggested McCulloch’s termination, but Harbor Branch put out a statement emphasizing the ideas that he had endangered human health and put Sea Oaks to the expense of cleaning its pool.

In fact, Harbor Branch paid for the pool cleaning – approximately $1,000, according to Sea Oaks Property Owners Association president Dick Heffern – so the community was not out any money, and there is no known instance of morbillivirus transmission from dolphins to humans.

In the case of other related infections that could theoretically have been spread, Savage noted the only people McCulloch allowed in the pool to comfort the dying dolphin were those who had already handled the animal prior to his arrival on the beach. No one was injured in the event and no one has become ill.

What Harbor Branch or FAU officials seem not to have taken into account is Steve’s stellar record as a marine mammal research and rescue leader, which they are well aware of. In the 15 years since he and Marilyn Mazzoil launched the marine mammal program at Harbor Branch, he has responded to more than 200 strandings without any injury or negative incident.

“This is the first time Steve McCulloch has been reprimanded by our agency,” says NOAA spokesperson Allison Garret.

Beside the 200 stranding events, McCulloch has led 10 dolphin health and environmental risk assessments, handling large, powerful animals in open water, managing a fleet of up to 12 boats with as many as 100 personnel without injury to a single participant.

He drafted and led the effort to get bills passed in the legislature to authorize dolphin and whale license plates that have raised tens of millions of dollars for Harbor Branch and other marine mammal research and rescue organizations, and scores of peer-reviewed scientific papers, many of them with him as a co-author, have come out of the HBOI marine mammal program, greatly increasing knowledge of the Indian River Lagoon ecology during a time of environmental crisis. 

He has also been an inspirational teacher to several generations of students, and Savage says her 16-year-old daughter has become interested in a career in marine biology after her encounter with McCulloch. 

Michael Boos, VP of Zoological Operations at SeaWorld Orlando, wrote that the marine mammal research and rescue program McCulloch co-founded and built into a world-renowned operation at Harbor Branch is “viewed as a template for us all.”

“The marine rescue industry is shocked at the decision to terminate Steve based on this [single alleged infraction of rescue protocols] ... all see it as a major overreaction,” wrote David Yates, CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, an institution made famous in the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.” “Whatever someone feels about Steve, I can tell you he is one of the most respected people in the world in our industry.”

Michael Boos, VP of Zoological Operations at SeaWorld Orlando, wrote that the marine mammal research and rescue program McCulloch co-founded and built into a world-renowned operation at Harbor Branch is “viewed as a template for us all.”

“The marine rescue industry is shocked at the decision to terminate Steve based on this [single alleged infraction of rescue protocols] ... all see it as a major overreaction,” wrote David Yates, CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, an institution made famous in the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.” “Whatever someone feels about Steve, I can tell you he is one of the most respected people in the world in our industry.”

 “It would be a catastrophic loss to the student to FAU students to lose Mr. McCulloch,” wrote Glenn Gillard, a veterinarian and adjunct professor of Animal Science, who credits McCulloch and Goldstein with inspiring many of his students to study veterinary medicine.

Most remarkably, McCulloch has done all this without any college degrees, serving science and marine mammals in the region, state and worldwide as one of the last bootstrap scientists on the scene.

And that may be the problem.

Harbor Branch was founded as an independent, bootstrap institution by non-academics, and McCulloch fit in and performed outstanding service for the organization. Now that HBOI is part of FAU, though, his lack of academic credentials may be a sore spot in some people’s minds.

There is also the question of control over revenue streams he has created; with McCulloch and Goldstein gone and marine mammal rescue program in shambles, who will get the money that would have gone to the program?

Harbor Branch is a valuable and much admired institution that does great work, but it has not been forthcoming about why McCulloch was tossed overboard for a single infraction when he has such an excellent operational and safety record and has contributed so much to marine mammal conservation and Harbor Branch.

Leaders at Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, Marine Resources Council in Palm Bay and the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo have written Davis, pleading with HBOI to reconsider the decision to fire McCulloch for the good marine mammals, marine mammal science and HBOI’s own programs and reputation.

McCulloch has been reluctant to comment, citing on-going discussions with NMFS, HBOI and FAU, and advice from legal counsel as he goes through a grievance process in hopes of reinstatement. But he did provide a statement for Vero Beach 32963, which says in part:

“For now, I am following a university process and wish to be respectful and responsible to all those involved. I remain positive and confident that once all the facts are made transparent, that I will be fully vindicated so that I can return to serve our community, the State and the region as I have for the past 15 years ... Regardless the outcome, this discussion needs to be more about Protecting Wild Dolphins and Whales and our shared ocean heritage than about any one person, organization or one stranding event. We all need to work together towards these important goals which will eventually define us to future generations.”