Molly’s life was microcosm of marine mammal captivity history
MARATHON, Florida––Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria killed more than 200-and-counting humans among them, from Barbuda to the southern end of the Coastal Bend region of Texas, but the best-known victim so far was apparently a dolphin, Molly, who was among the oldest dolphins on record.
Molly spent the last 21 years of her life at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Florida, halfway down the Florida Keys. She was among the last living dolphins who were captured from the wild before the 1972 passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Two tons of rotting fish
The Dolphin Connection, an exhibition venue similar to the Dolphin Research Center, located at nearby Duck Key, transferred five resident dolphins to SeaWorld in Orlando ahead of Hurricane Irma. The Dolphin Connection dolphins remain at SeaWorld while the staff undertakes repairs and clean-up, including disposing of about two tons of fish that rotted in freezers after the facility lost electricity.
Molly and the other Dolphin Research Center dolphins rode out Hurricane Irma where they were. At first all appeared to have survived in good condition, but Molly, who had suffered from a variety of health problems for at least three years, took a turn for the worse and died on September 23, 2017.
“We don’t currently know the exact cause of Molly’s death,” the Dolphin Research Center announced on September 24, 2017, but the stress of enduring Hurricane Irma just a few days before was almost certainly a major contributing factor.
Captured in 1968
Marine Mammal Conservancy founder Rick Trout, of Key West, who was among Molly’s former trainers, had long been concerned about her condition. Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector, of Fort Lauderdale, shared Trout’s concern. Rector, a former Ocean World dolphin trainer who later campaigned successfully to close Ocean World, pursued litigation on Molly’s behalf.
Believed to have been 51 to 56 years old, Molly was captured in 1968 by professional dolphin hunter Eugene Hamilton, “for a playboy bachelor in Punta Gorda to keep in his saltwater pool to impress his girlfriend,” Miami Herald reporter Cammy Clark wrote in 2014.
Survived early illnesses & accidents
“Within a year or so, Molly was near death. She was severely emaciated and dehydrated, with infections and ulcers. Former Navy SEAL Frank O’Connor, who worked in the Navy’s marine mammal program, was asked to help. He relocated Molly to Key Largo, at Porpoise Pens (now called Dolphins Plus), owned by another dolphin hunter, Jerry Mitchell,” Clark continued. “O’Connor nursed Molly back to health and then trained her to do tricks. For the next decade, Molly’s multiple owners had her transported by planes and vans to performances around the country and in Puerto Rico.”
At least twice during those years, during which her primary owner was trainer Rusty Nielsen, Molly was seriously injured in transportation accidents.
Trainer Stephen McCulloch circa 1978 acquired a part-interest in Molly, exhibiting her at first at the Dutch Wonderland theme park in Pennsylvania and the Theatre of the Sea theme park in Islamorada, Florida.
McCulloch in 1996 cofounded the Harbor Branch Oceanic Institute Marine Mammal Research and Conservation program, participating in more than 200 stranding rescues before the program was acquired by Florida Atlantic University, leading to his dismissal in 2014.
When McCulloch owned Molly, however, he was still just a trainer, though a trainer who constantly looked for opportunities for Molly to do work more stimulating than repetitive stunts in small pools.
At one point McCulloch trained Molly for a trip to Loch Ness, Scotland, to search for the fabled Loch Ness lake monster. The planned expedition was cancelled after another dolphin died during the preparations.
McCullogh then trained Molly to help treasure hunter Mel Fisher search for the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish treasure galleon that sank off the Florida Keys in 1622. Fisher found the Nuestra Senora de Atocha in 1985, but Molly meanwhile had been taken to Virginia Key to participate in making the 1981 film Key Tortuga, and later in commercials for Conoco oil and Sapporo beer.
From Ocean Reef Club to Sugarloaf
By 1988 Molly had become the first of three dolphins kept in a sea pen at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, soon joined by two others, Bogie and Bacall, who had just been captured from the Indian River. In 1992, after a lemon shark cut the net that held the sea pen closed, Molly and Bacall escaped, spending three weeks at large. Recaptured, they survived a direct hit on the facilities by Hurricane Andrew.
Litigation and protests seeking the release of Molly, Bogie, and Bacall led in 1994 to all three dolphins being transferred to activist Joe Roberts, who took them to the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary, formed at a defunct resort on Sugarloaf Key owned by attorney Lloyd Good.
The resort already had a resident performing dolphin trained by Good’s son Lloyd Good III, a history of conflicts with environmental regulation, and six newly arrived U.S. Navy dolphins.
The Navy dolphins were being prepared for release by Ric O’Barry, the former Miami Seaquarium and Flipper trainer who renounced dolphin captivity on Earth Day 1970, formed an organization called The Dolphin Project (now Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project), and has campaigned against dolphin captivity ever since.
With Molly, Bogie, and Bacall came former Ocean Reef Club trainers Rick Trout, Lynne Stringer, and Mary Lycan, whose ideas about how to release dolphins fundamentally clashed with those of O’Barry. Further complicating matters, Trout was also a former U.S. Navy trainer, previously acquainted with the Navy dolphins who were part of the project.
Joining O’Barry, Trout, et al at the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary were an entourage of activists, funders, celebrities, and at least four hangers-on who had histories of alleged espionage against animal advocacy projects.
Back to captivity
As the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary disintegrated amid incessant infighting among the participants, Joe Roberts took Bogie and Bacall to a sea pen on the Indian River, near their capture point. Someone cut the fence and released Bogie and Bacall before they could be freeze-branded for identification. What exactly became of them remains unknown.
Anticipating federal seizure of the Navy dolphins as result of complaints by Trout and others, O’Barry and Good III released two of those dolphins near Sugarloaf. O’Barry argues that the release would have succeeded if Trout had not lured them back with a Navy recall pinger. Others, including Trout and Rector, claim both dolphins were injured and starving when recaptured.
Whatever the case, both Roberts and O’Barry were heavily fined for releasing dolphins without the requisite federal permits. The ex-Navy dolphins were returned to the Navy, while Molly and the original Sugarloaf Key dolphin were relocated to the Dolphin Research Center.
At the Dolphin Research Center, “Molly became a mother figure to all the dolphins in the front lagoon. She was a wonderful teacher to dolphins and people alike,” the center posted.
The Dolphin Research Center deflected criticism associated with Molly’s death by emphasizing the successful release of a manatee, Rebellion, who “returned home to the waters of Key Largo on September 28, 2017,” DRC recounted in a series of Facebook postings, “after five months of healing and rehabilitation from being hit by a boat.
“Dolphin Research Center’s Manatee Rescue Team and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rescued the animal in mid-April of this year,” DRC said, “after he suffered a broken rib and other internal injuries from the boat strike. After rescue, he was transported to Miami Seaquarium for treatment.”
Upon release, “After briefly interacting with other manatees in the area,” Rebellion “returned to the boat ramp where people were observing him and lingered there for several minutes. Eventually, he swam over to mangroves and began to eat. Shortly after he continued his progress away from shore.”
Elsewhere in the Keys post-Irma
The Florida Keys SPCA, with locations in Key West and Marathon, was “back up and running with normal business hours and operations,” the staff reported on September 25, 2017. “Currently our fosters are slowly bringing back in animals who were fostered during the storm. We still have very few animals available for adoption,” the Florida Keys SPCA mentioned.
The Florida Keys SPCA had volunteer help with clean-up from some of the passengers on the Empress of the Seas cruise ship, the first to dock at Key West after Hurricane Irma passed.
Most Florida animal care facilities had already resumed relatively normal operations by September 25, 2017, including animal shelters and sanctuaries, wildlife rehabilitation centers, zoos, other exhibition sites, laboratories, farms, horse racing venues, and greyhound tracks.
Still little info from Cuba
Very little information about the effects of Hurricane Irma on animals, however, was available from Cuba as of October 1, 2017.
Hurricane Irma is known to have hit wildlife habitat as well as human communities particularly hard on September 9, 2017 in the vicinities of Camaguey Archipelago and the Jardines del Rey, off the central northern coast of Cuba.
Marine scientist Aldemaro Romero, now dean of the College of Arts & Sciences for Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, in 2005 identified Camaguey Archipelago as a priority conservation area because of the diversity and abundance of fish found there. The archipelago is also used by sea birds and dolphins. Access is only by boat. Months may pass before anyone is able to do even a preliminary assessment of the damage done to the animals and their habitat.
“Two of Cuba’s most important marine research stations, the Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research in Cayo Coco,” which is the nearest to the Camaguey Archipelago, “and the Center for Marine Research of the University of Havana suffered structural damage, power outages and equipment losses,” the Ocean Foundation reported.