Flipper's Revenge

They're cute. They're cuddly. They're smart. And as the fiasco at Sugarloaf Key shows, they make humans do crazy things.

They set out in two boats from the mangrove-lined islands near Sugarloaf Key on the morning of May 23, 1996. Two dolphins that had spent years in captivity were lying on layers of foam rubber aboard one of the vessels, shielded from the sun by a tentlike structure and cooled by wet sheets covering their velvety gray skin. A film crew and two newspaper reporters on the other boat recorded the scene.

By 11:30 the expedition found itself among a pod of wild dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico about twelve miles from Key West. Dorsal fins cut through the water and surged two, three, four at a time above the swells, then arced downward in playful dives. Three men in the dolphins' boat lifted the animals onto stretchers, and then gently rolled them into the ocean -- first the one with a heart branded onto his dorsal fin; next the one bearing a star. They swam off and the humans headed back to Sugarloaf Key, north of Key West, and straight into a raging storm -- though not the kind that nature stirs up. This was a purely manmade tempest, and a year later it hasn't completely subsided.

When the boats returned, around noon, an agent from the National Marine Fisheries Service was waiting. He had questions about what had happened to the two dolphins, named Buck and Luther. As far as the government was concerned, a crime had just been committed -- the dolphins had been released into the wild without a federal permit. Within just a few hours, waterborne squads of activists, dolphin trainers, government regulators, and concerned citizens were out searching for the animals. The rest of the world learned about the incident almost instantly via phone, fax, and Internet connections among animal rights advocates.

Newspapers and radio talk shows in the Florida Keys erupted with debate over the so-called dump-and-run, which was dubbed a "kidnapping" by the New York Times. There seemed to be no middle ground -- the dolphin release was either an irresponsible act of animal abuse or it was a compassionate if desperate attempt to give the animals one last chance at freedom.

Both dolphins were recaptured within a couple of weeks; federal authorities declared their intent to criminally charge the perpetrators with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The man responsible for the release, Ric O'Barry, publicly dared agents to arrest him. So far they haven't. But the 57-year-old O'Barry, famous as the former dolphin trainer in the Sixties television series Flipper and now widely acknowledged as the father of the anti-captivity movement, has drawn perhaps the most virulent attacks he's faced in more than twenty years as an activist -- this time not just from his usual establishment critics, but from within the ranks of animal rights workers as well.

The ordeal did little for Buck and Luther other than to traumatize them. At the time O'Barry rolled them overboard, they had not yet completed their survival training. And now they're almost certain to live out the rest of their days in captivity.

In mid-1994 the Sugarloaf Lodge, a rustic resort and long-time landmark on the key of the same name, became the site of a pioneering project to return captive dolphins to the wild, an idea that may seem simple and logical to a public fascinated with the creatures, but which in reality is among the most politically, scientifically, and financially complicated tasks imaginable.

Captive dolphins, and their larger cousins killer whales, have been released at various times since the Sixties in several locations around the world -- with varying degrees of success. Some of those releases have been supervised by Miami resident Ric O'Barry, who was brought to Sugarloaf for the same purpose. But in many ways the Sugarloaf project was without precedent, and it held great potential to exert influence over future releases of marine mammals. For one thing, a nonprofit corporation, the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary, had been established for the sole purpose of "deprogramming" captive dolphins and setting them free. Also unprecedented was the fact that this would be the first time performing (or "display") dolphins (as opposed to research dolphins) would be released under the strictures of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which governs matters pertaining to dolphins in U.S. waters.

"There had been one release under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, in 1991," says Naomi Rose, a marine biologist with the Humane Society of the United States, which is based in Washington, D.C. "But that was back in the days politically when it wasn't such a hot potato. And those were research animals. Then after that I would say the political atmosphere changed a lot because people started wanting to release display animals." From the beginning the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary attracted journalists, animal-welfare activists, and other interested observers from all over the globe. As five dolphins were being readied to return to an environment they hadn't known for a decade, the whole world was watching.

Much to everyone's dismay, the sight was far from pretty. With amazing speed, peaceful Sugarloaf Key was transformed into a carnival midway, a soap opera set, a civil war battleground. Ultimately it became a symbol for a historical opportunity lost. Not just lost, but blown to smithereens by explosive internecine struggles and colliding egos.

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