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.

Good's radical actions put O'Barry in an awkward position. He didn't want to abandon the dolphins, but things had gotten too crazy to continue at Sugarloaf. So he and several Sugarloaf apostates hit upon a plan. They would take Luther and Buck to a new training area, not far away, and prepare them for release off the coast of Mississippi, where they had been captured. (O'Barry had decided months earlier that Jake, larger and older but more timid, wouldn't survive in the wild.)

Up in Melbourne, Joe Roberts and Naomi Rose were still working on their application for a federal release permit. Bogie had miscarried but Bacall was close to giving birth. They were living in a large enclosed area in the Indian River lagoon, where they were able to interact with wild dolphins, some probably relatives, from whom they were separated by only a mesh fence. Then on May 16, 1996, someone cut a hole in the fence and Bogie and Bacall swam out.

The surreptitious release caused a commotion in the animal rights community, and of course Ric O'Barry, who in the past had cut fences to free dolphins, was accused of committing the crime. But he insists he didn't do it, and people close to the Welcome Home project believe him. They have a suspect in mind, though no real hope of proving guilt.

More than anything else, Rose says, the unauthorized release was a blow to their efforts at setting a permitting precedent. "It was a perfect case because Bogie and Bacall were responding so well," she says. "We wanted to be able to prove that it really could be done -- a successful release when these animals had been in captivity for eight years. Now I can't prove it, and it breaks my heart."

Roberts says a team of researchers studying dolphins in the Indian River lagoon believe they've spotted Bogie and Bacall (with a calf), although positive identification is extremely difficult because they escaped before their dorsal fins could be branded for easy monitoring. Many anti-captivity activists express relief at that quirk of timing, as government regulators otherwise almost certainly would have been able to identify them and pick them up by now. In any case, Rose and others say there's every reason to believe Bogie and Bacall are thriving in the wild; if they weren't, they would have been spotted on or near the shores of the lagoon, sick or begging for food.

At about the same time someone sprung Bogie and Bacall, O'Barry says he learned from sympathetic sources within the federal bureaucracy that Luther, Buck, and Jake were about to be seized. And it was true, the National Marine Fisheries Service now freely acknowledges. Despite the growing differences between O'Barry and Lloyd Good, both men felt compelled to take immediate action in order to keep the dolphins out of the hands of the feds. They had a veterinarian examine and draw blood from Buck and Luther (mainly to make sure they weren't carrying the contagious and fatal morbilli virus). They quickly built the little shelter on Good's boat, and O'Barry called a film crew and a few reporters. The blood work came back clean on May 22, 1996, and the following morning the dump-and-run was in full swing.

For a week afterward personnel from the U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Florida Marine Patrol swarmed over land and sea looking for the two AWOL dolphins. A hotline was set up to report sightings.

Luther was spotted early on, hanging out at a private Key West marina and, according to some witnesses, having a great time catching the plentiful mullet. Other witnesses, however, reported that Luther had approached their boats begging for food. A Marine Fisheries agent flew down from Washington to manage the situation. Something had to be done, the government people concluded, because Luther appeared to be in bad shape -- he had suffered a cut near his dorsal fin and was dehydrated and underweight. Finally he slipped out of the marina and was lured into an enclosure at the nearby naval air base on Boca Chica Key by means of a "recall pinger," a sonic device to which the navy dolphins had been trained to respond.

Buck's whereabouts remained a mystery until two days after Luther was caught, when he turned up 60 miles to the north. He too had suffered a cut -- worse than Luther's -- and was noticeably thinner. A navy pinger drew him into the nearby Dolphin Research Center. "Buck was so malnourished his body was breaking down essential tissues to stay alive," wrote Gregory Bossart, the Miami Seaquarium veterinarian who was part of the team that examined the dolphins. "He was almost 100 pounds underweight and showed signs of a systemic infection."

Some people remain skeptical of official reports of the dolphins' deteriorated condition. Gary Elston, director of the underwater diving program at Keys Community College and a former volunteer at the Sugarloaf Sanctuary, saw Luther during and after his week at the marina. "I knew those dolphins," Elston says. "Luther was not in trouble. He was catching mullet like any other dolphin."

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