Flipper's Revenge

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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.

Accounts of life at Sugarloaf from August 1994 through June 1996 have been passed along and elaborated upon until the tale that emerges is a concoction of conflicting facts and perspectives. "There is no objective history here," asserts Naomi Rose, who was closely involved with the efforts at Sugarloaf. "Usually if you have five people watching an event, you'll get ten versions. In this case you'll get 25 versions. I cannot begin to tell you how intense the personality conflicts are among these activists. I've never seen anything like this."

Adds Niki Entrup, whose Vienna-based animal rights organization Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) was a major financial sponsor: "Something about dolphins makes people crazy."

Bogie, Bacall, and Molly were the first to arrive at the newly christened Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in August 1994. The three female dolphins had been putting on private shows at the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo for the previous six years. Prior to that, Molly, a voluptuous, unabashed dominatrix, had appeared in marine shows all over the U.S. and had even been trained to carry cameras to search for the Loch Ness monster in Scotland.

Federal law decrees that marine mammals held for display must be available to the general public, and the private Ocean Reef Club didn't want to open its doors. So after a long campaign by activists, the club's directors agreed to let their dolphins go. O'Barry and a 43-year-old Melbourne scuba diver named Joe Roberts had formed an organization called the Welcome Home Project, which was dedicated to taking Bogie and Bacall back to the Indian River lagoon near Melbourne, where they'd been captured in 1988. Sugarloaf would be their temporary home while O'Barry supervised their "untraining" and honed their survival skills. The much older Molly was considered more likely to "retire" at Sugarloaf.

Lloyd Good III, whose father has owned Sugarloaf Lodge since 1973, had been part of the negotiations for the "Ocean Reef Three" (as the activists dubbed them) and had been working for more than a year to obtain the federal license necessary to keep the dolphins until release. A laid-back 34-year-old with longish blond hair and a bushy beard, Good says he dreamed of establishing "the world's biggest dolphin pool, where dolphins can come and go as they please. I believe in letting them choose."

Support was generally enthusiastic for Bogie and Bacall's Welcome Home Project and for the whole premise of the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary. Representatives of some of the nation's most prominent animal rights organizations agreed to sit on the sanctuary's board of directors. Donations flowed in from wealthy animal advocates. Local raffles and benefit concerts raised more funds. In addition to hiring Ric O'Barry to oversee work with the dolphins, Good brought on several paid trainers and handlers. Volunteers offered to catch and prepare fish (a healthy dolphin eats 20 to 30 pounds of fish per day) and assist with myriad other chores.

O'Barry helped attract financial support and -- just as important -- media coverage. After a high-profile career as a television dolphin trainer, he underwent a radical change of heart and became a campaigner for dolphin freedom. He has accumulated three decades' worth of contacts in both entertainment and animal rights spheres; his anti-captivity resume includes protests and sabotage activities (resulting in several arrests), hunger strikes, and actual dolphin releases. None of the releases, however, has been thoroughly evaluated, so it's impossible to know how well the dolphins adapted. A 1993 release in Brazil is considered successful even by a few of his critics.

The job of retraining and releasing Bogie and Bacall, O'Barry estimated, would take three months and cost $25,000. In the spring of 1994, when the arrival of Bogie, Bacall, and Molly at Sugarloaf was thought to be imminent, O'Barry contacted Spiegel TV of Germany to see if its newsmagazine show would be interested in documenting the project. Spiegel executives flew him to Hamburg, wined and dined him, and agreed to pay $25,000 in three installments for exclusive rights to film the freeing of Bogie and Bacall. O'Barry figured he'd let the animals go on the symbolic date of July 4, 1994. Joe Roberts, from his office in Melbourne, would make sure the voluminous paperwork necessary to complete the application for a federal release permit was in order.

At the same time Sugarloaf was preparing for Bogie, Bacall, and Molly, another dolphin windfall was in the works. After much lobbying by the Humane Society and others, the U.S. Navy, which held more than 100 dolphins, agreed to relinquish some of its stable. Humane Society officials asked O'Barry to assist them, and together they flew to a naval facility in San Diego, where they were to select up to six release candidates. O'Barry chose five males he felt were most likely to readapt to the wild. (Two were later dropped because of poor health.) In late November 1994, O'Barry accompanied the dolphins Luther, Buck, and Jake on a military transport plane to the Naval Air Station at Key West. Sugarloaf staff and volunteers were on hand to help load them onto trucks for the short drive to the sanctuary.

Now there were seven, including the aging and ailing Sugar, who had lived in a lagoon at the Sugarloaf Lodge for more than twenty years and who was considered a Good family pet. Recalls Lloyd Good, who became the legal owner of the new animals: "I don't believe you can own dolphins, but I signed an agreement to receive Molly, Bacall, and Bogie on August 10, 1994. Then I signed an agreement to receive Luther, Buck, and Jake on November 30. I brought Ric O'Barry in because he was the only one at the time who had experience with releasing dolphins. Then everything started to go nutty."

From the day O'Barry arrived at Sugarloaf, where Good put him up and paid him a small salary (around $300 per week), he was at odds with one of his former acolytes, Rick Trout. The volatile, ruddy, red-haired Trout, a dolphin trainer like O'Barry, had helped Good get the sanctuary operating and worked there as director of the animals' caretaking. Years earlier Trout had worked with Molly, Bogie, and Bacall at Ocean Reef. Coincidentally, he had also been a contract trainer for the navy in San Diego.

From the start Trout clashed with the brooding, sometimes distant O'Barry. Opposing views on treatment and training of dolphins exacerbated their personality differences. Before long Sugarloaf was a divided camp, with all involved forced to choose sides. "It was one of those things in your life you don't ever want to remember," recalls Sue Vola, a friend of Trout who once operated the Sugarloaf Lodge's restaurant and volunteered with dolphin care. "Everything kind of changed once Ric [O'Barry] got there."

Trout maintains that O'Barry was only putting on a show for the TV cameras, not applying any kind of methodology that would ensure results; further, Trout was convinced that O'Barry was abusing the dolphins with corporal punishment. He even accused O'Barry of injuring one of the animals by throwing a brick at her. Trout himself had been fired from the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key in the Seventies, allegedly for kicking a dolphin and depriving it of food, according to center spokeswoman Dana Carnegie. Each man contends the abuse allegations against him are hogwash.

There is no official instruction book for readapting captive dolphins to freedom, despite the fact that the National Marine Fisheries Service must approve a detailed plan as part its review for issuing a release permit. O'Barry's approach is more intuitive than scientific, and he argues that it has always worked for him. In addition to spending many hours discreetly observing the dolphins' behavior, O'Barry says his basic tool is to stop responding (usually with food) to a dolphin's tricks and other "learned" behaviors. "It's not rocket science," he likes to say. "Anyone who pays attention can do it."

That attitude would become a point of contention among other activists and trainers who, for the sake of winning approval from government scientists, wanted to be able to carefully document and interpret every change in the dolphins' behavior and physiology. They were going to have to prove that the animals could do more than simply catch live fish, but all of it was sketchily charted territory. Trout and O'Barry, however, were not exploring it together. O'Barry claims that Trout simply wanted to usurp his place as the leader of the free-dolphin movement. Trout contends that he couldn't stand by while O'Barry screwed up such an important project.

Regardless, by December 1994 Lloyd Good felt he had to do something to restore peace, so he fired Trout and Trout's girlfriend Lynne Stringer, also a trainer. "I had to decide between the two, and O'Barry had the experience," Good now says. "Trout was my friend."

But Good's peace plan backfired. Excluded from the project, Trout went on a fax and telephone rampage. He complained to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) about conditions at the sanctuary, including O'Barry's "outdated and abusive" training methods. He also contacted animal rights groups all over the world with complaints about O'Barry and Good.

The USDA, obligated to investigate complaints, sent inspectors to Sugarloaf more than 30 times over the next year and a half. "We also started seeing all these people with binoculars and video cameras sitting in boats out on the bay," recalls Kathleen Brooks, a paid handler. The observers were mostly local activists who, like Trout, were concerned about the dolphins' treatment.

Scrutiny was even more intense from the Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations and interested parties who were counting on these releases being carried out with impeccable adherence to every legal and scientific requirement. "We went into this believing what we were getting into was a precedent-setting permit process, " recalls Naomi Rosde. "We were going to leap through all the hoops, and Mr. O'Barry was 100 percent behind that. We all wanted to do this right -- so right that we could turn to the captive-dolphin industry and say, 'Poke holes in this if you can. We dare you.'"

Joe Roberts, working in Melbourne on the application for the federal release permit for Bogie and Bacall, says he pleaded with O'Barry to help put a training protocol in writing. "I even sent him a tape recorder and said, 'If you don't want to write, just speak into it and we'll work with that,' but he never did." In October 1994 Roberts submitted to the feds his first attempt at a detailed permit application. It wouldn't be until Valentine's Day 1995 that he would get a response, which he described as "a mindblower": fourteen pages of questions and requests for arcane scientific minutiae that even the best-informed on his team wondered how they could ever provide.

Not only was the permit process at a standstill, but Sugarloaf was having trouble keeping a veterinarian of record, a federal requirement. During the course of about two years, four veterinarians experienced in caring for marine mammals came and went. Other vets with different specialties sometimes filled in when a dolphin doctor couldn't be found, but that didn't solve the problem. According to several people who worked at Sugarloaf, and to some of the doctors themselves, many marine mammal vets refused on principle to have anything to do with O'Barry, Good, or Trout, all of whom were perceived as being difficult. But an underlying philosophical conflict was never far from the surface as well. Good and O'Barry, like many other anti-captivity advocates, don't trust marine mammal veterinarians who are employed by the very aquatic amusement parks and display facilities that activists consider barbaric.

Dolphin-freedom advocates tend to favor psychological approaches to health problems, contending that most ailments suffered by captive dolphins, such as ulcers, are brought on by stress. Lloyd Good, though, is more a purist than most. "In the case of dolphins in captivity," he says, "most problems are spiritual problems. A lot of what I did would freak out any typical vet."

In the early stages of the Sugarloaf project, Good was introduced to a shaman, a Native American healer-spiritualist who described herself as a "holistic veterinarian." Good was convinced he'd found salvation. He brought out the shaman, named Sharman, from her California home and paid her for several extended visits. Soon she became his (and Sugarloaf's) spiritual guide, and a consulting "veterinarian" to the dolphins. If some people didn't approve of that, there wasn't much they could do, as Good was the legal owner of both Sugarloaf Lodge and the dolphins. One observer, a Boynton Beach writer named Shaney Frey who is working on a book about the Sugarloaf releases, recalls her impressions of Sharman the shaman: "When I first met her, I thought, 'Who is this little Humpty-Dumpty wrapped in fox furs with a tom-tom and ribbons in her braids?' She had Lloyd running around the sanctuary chanting and burning incense. He always called her when a dolphin was sick."

Six months after Bogie, Bacall, and Molly arrived from Ocean Reef, Spiegel TV was wondering what had happened to O'Barry's 90-day timetable. The Spiegel producer, Marion Renk-Richardson, had prepared both print and broadcast stories about O'Barry a few years earlier and thought highly of him -- so much so that she had already turned over two-thirds of the contracted $25,000. "He had promised speedy delivery," Richardson says today, "then it turned out no way ever in our wildest dreams this could be the case. After a year still nothing had happened. Ric O'Barry was sitting by the water in a meaningful way. He fashioned himself as a rock-star dolphin activist. He got a lot of money, lived a rock and roll lifestyle, and became more involved in hanging out with [Prince Sadruddin] Aga Khan and dating an Italian model."

Indeed, for decades O'Barry has moved in exotic circles, living the life of a romantic rebel, and has, in fact, hung out with rock stars. He is not at all shy about reminding the world that he pretty much singlehandedly founded the dolphin liberation movement and was its most visible spokesman until just the past five years. In Europe, where animal welfare issues are often taken more seriously than in the U.S., O'Barry is a true media presence; he attracts attention and money. Yet he and his supporters bridle at accusations by detractors that he is profligate; his apartment in South Miami is not luxurious, and he has suffered physical discomfort and deprivation to publicize his cause, including dozens of nights spent in jails and a recent hospitalization following a hunger strike in protest of the Israeli government's importation of dolphins.

German television executives weren't the only people experiencing difficulties with O'Barry. By early 1995 the honeymoon was also over between O'Barry and Joe Roberts, Welcome Home's two principals. The problem wasn't so much the delay in releasing Bogie and Bacall as it was money. No sooner had the contract with Spiegel TV been signed and the first cash installment deposited in the Welcome Home bank account than Roberts began hearing about fundraising events that supposedly brought in thousands of dollars he never saw. "When I brought this up to Ric," Roberts recounts, "he told me it was none of my business, that he was doing this when I was still learning to tie my shoes. We fought about it." (O'Barry asserts that money raised by him and his supporters in Europe for Bogie and Bacall did go toward legitimate Welcome Home expenses, which, according to Roberts, exceeded the original $25,000 estimate by eight times.)

By March 1995 Spiegel TV had utterly lost patience with O'Barry. Richardson completed a half-hour documentary about Bogie and Bacall and their lives at Sugarloaf, but that was hardly what anyone wanted. Another German company had been filming the retraining of navy dolphins Luther, Buck, and Jake, but finally gave up too, and produced instead a documentary critical of O'Barry. Spiegel never made its final payment to him, but Richardson still believes she was ripped off. Counters O'Barry: "They didn't get what they wanted, but it was no ripoff."

By the early summer of 1995 even Lloyd Good was growing impatient. Encouraged by his shaman to follow his heart, and convinced that the dolphins were feeling as frustrated as the humans, Good unilaterally decided the time had come to "give them a choice." And so he set them all free. At least he tried to. Four swam away when he opened the gates that separated Sugarloaf's lagoons from the open waters of Florida Bay, but they quickly returned. When that impromptu release plan didn't work, Good allowed Luther to swim in a holding pen with Bogie and Bacall.

O'Barry had been out of town, but when he returned and discovered what had happened, he was furious. Good, however, would not relent. "It's unnatural to separate dolphins by sex," Good says by way of explanation. But the unfettered interaction led to trouble: Bogie and Bacall soon became pregnant, a development likely to further delay their release.

Good's impulsive behavior was also the final straw for the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary's three out-of-state board members, each of whom was a prominent and respected animal rights advocate. In a series of emergency meetings via telephone conference call, the three directors, who constituted a majority of the board, staged an organizational coup d'etat. Among other dramatic decisions, they voted to transfer four dolphins -- Molly, Luther, Buck, and Jake -- to Rick Trout at his recently established Marine Mammal Conservancy near Key Largo. (Trout had been sending the board members alarming reports about events at Sugarloaf.) In addition, they voted to place Bogie and Bacall in Joe Roberts's possession in Melbourne. Not surprisingly Good and O'Barry, the other two members of the board of directors, strenuously objected and quickly took the matter to Monroe County Circuit Court, where they emerged victorious: A judge ruled that conditions at Sugarloaf did not warrant the animals' removal.

Trout's ambitions to gain control of the dolphins were thwarted, and he once again launched a worldwide publicity campaign aimed at discrediting Sugarloaf and challenging the judge's wisdom in allowing the dolphins to remain with "known animal abusers."

Joe Roberts, on the other hand, resorted to negotiation. The result, arrived at after much consultation and third-party intervention, was that Bogie and Bacall would be moved north to Melbourne; Molly, Luther, Buck, and Jake would remain at Sugarloaf; and the out-of-state board members would resign, to be replaced by directors friendlier to Good and O'Barry.

Bogie and Bacall's rehabilitation and eventual release would continue under the auspices of the Welcome Home project and would take place at Roberts's compound on the Indian River lagoon, where the animals had been captured eight years earlier. This location would increase the animals' chances of readapting to the wild and possibly even rejoining their original family group.

In September 1995 Bogie and Bacall arrived in separate trucks. Riding with Bacall was O'Barry, who stepped down from the vehicle and, on orders from Roberts, was immediately arrested for trespassing. According to Roberts, the arrest was a form of payback. When members of Roberts's staff had gone to Sugarloaf to assist in preparing the dolphins for the trip north, Lloyd Good had ordered them off the property. O'Barry reportedly did nothing to intercede.

With O'Barry's arrest, any vestiges of a partnership with Roberts abruptly ended. The Humane Society, which had played a central role in obtaining navy dolphins Luther, Buck, and Jake, was now no longer welcome at Sugarloaf. In response, Naomi Rose, the group's marine biologist, threw her support behind Roberts and the Welcome Home project's effort to release Bogie and Bacall. The Humane Society also kicked in more than $100,000. The major sponsor, however, was Four Paws, the respected Vienna-based organization. Niki Entrup won't say how much money his group contributed throughout the Bogie and Bacall saga, but he minces no words about his disillusionment: "For me the result of everything is that I would not, as a European organization, go for a release in the U.S. any more."

Lloyd Good and Ric O'Barry may have struck a deal that reconstituted Sugarloaf's board of directors and allowed them to keep Molly and the three navy dolphins, but that didn't mean their problems were over.

Prompted by repeated complaints, many of them filed by the Humane Society and Rick Trout, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a prominent dolphin veterinarian down to Sugarloaf to inspect the animals. The specialist's report was critical, and the agency ordered Good to hire a veterinarian of record and to have his animals undergo a series of medical tests. If Good didn't comply with these directives, the feds warned, he would be subject to fines and even the loss of his permit to keep the dolphins.

Good was resistant to most of the edicts, especially the government's insistence on extensive testing, in large part because he was opposed to having the dolphins perform learned "medical behaviors" that enable handlers to take blood samples, blowhole cultures, and perform other examinations without the use of sedation or physical restraints. "If you're trying to decondition them to stop being dependent on humans," he says, "the last thing you want to do is continue to reinforce those trained behaviors."

By early 1996 most of the staff and volunteers had either left Sugarloaf or had been asked to leave by Good, who had made little effort to comply with the government's orders. Even those who had long supported the Sugarloaf project were deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation. "All this time we'd been defending the place against people like Trout," recalls volunteer Vanessa Martini. "Now things really were bad. I walked out because I couldn't be party to animal abuse."

Good, by now convinced that the government posed a threat to the dolphins' welfare, took another dramatic step: He removed the remaining fences that had been blocking the animals' access to Florida Bay. At last he had achieved his ideal of free will -- the dolphins could to come and go, and the males could mate with Molly if they so pleased.

When federal officials learned what he'd done, they responded sternly and charged him with violating the Animal Welfare Act. Even O'Barry publicly criticized his partner, telling the Miami Herald that Good was "out of control."

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."

Writer Shaney Frey conducted her own investigation and concluded from medical records she obtained that Buck weighed just 24 pounds less than he did upon arriving at Sugarloaf from San Diego.

Insists Ric O'Barry: "They could have made it if they were left alone. This was a sabotage."

Not many people bought that argument. O'Barry was lambasted by animal rights groups and in the media as an irresponsible extremist. "What alternatives did I have?" he asks today. "I could have done nothing and left them there to be confiscated, or I could have taken them and given them a chance at freedom. I'd do the same thing today."

A few days after Buck was recaptured, government agents seized Jake, the timid navy dolphin left behind at Sugarloaf. Two weeks later they confiscated Molly and transferred her to the Dolphin Research Center, where she remains along with Buck. The navy transported Jake and Luther back to their holding pens in San Diego.

Rick Trout, who once was close to owning four of the Sugarloaf dolphins, has unleashed another fax attack -- this time against the Dolphin Research Center, where Molly, in her late middle age, is now pregnant. Trout has also gone to court in an effort to gain custody of the animals he believes are rightfully his. Until he exhausts his legal options, ownership of the four dolphins remains uncertain. "I should be a very angry man for having worked eight years and seeing them throw me out like they did," Trout says bitterly. "I don't care, as long as they do right by the animals. But this set things back for all the dolphins. We are looking now at five to ten years to clean up the mess Mr. O'Barry has made. His name is mud in just about every corner."

Ric O'Barry, not one to sit passively as his name and reputation are trashed, is writing a book that will lay out his version of the Sugarloaf fiasco. Occasionally he is called upon to travel overseas for speaking engagements or to rally support for specific dolphin causes. Not all animal rights organizations, it seems, have given up on him.

Niki Entrup of Four Paws, however, is among those who are taking a step back -- not just from O'Barry but from American-style activism altogether. "For any future rehabilitation and release of dolphins I'll get a businessman to manage the project, someone who's selling shoes or records, and be sure not to get a dolphin person," Entrup vows. "I don't know what it is about people who work to free dolphins -- they're coming closer to getting this hero sickness, people promoting themselves; they want to be on TV. I think this is really a problem. The dolphins were never the problem. The only problem was the people.

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