Saturday, January 12, 2019

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin calf stranding here in Antigua.

As you may know, one week ago today at about 10:00am an Antiguan family found a baby dolphin swimming outside their home in Willoughby Bay. They called me and told me it was less than a meter long and seemed to be weak. I quickly called a team of fellow Antiguan conservationists who lived fairly close to that side of the island and also posted info on the Facebook page Antigua Whale and Dolphin Network appealing for expert advice. By 11:12 am the people on the scene reported that the dolphin was occasionally getting washed close to the rocks on the west side of the small bay where she was found. I made contact with the management of stingray city who in the past had made enclosures, and asked them if they would help build one quickly so that we could secure the baby dolphin in the sea until we had clear consensus on what to do next. I also contacted our government's Fisheries Department to alert them of the situation. A few of the small team took a boat and spent an hour looking in and around Willoughby Bay to see if there were any other dolphins in the hope that "mom" could be spotted. This was unsuccessful and none were seen. We also asked the local sailing community to keep an eye out for dolphin pods. Very quickly marine mammal stranding experts were contacted around the world and at 12:40 pm Caribbean Stranding Network founder, Dr. Tony Mignucci agreed to come from Puerto Rico with a small team and  emergency supplies. His immediate instructions were not to feed it and to take the dolphin out of the sea and to put it into a pool until he arrived early Saturday evening. He identified it as a Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (stenella attunuata) and thought it was 6 months old. According to the data available online, this species' conservation status is "of least concern" meaning that there are loads of them around the world and that they lived offshore in deeper waters. It would likely not feed on it's own in the wild until it was well over a year old.  By this time we had a very good core group of about 7 people who have spent their lives in and around marine conservation here locally. Some in the group felt that we should take it out to sea and let nature take over. In the end we decided to follow Tony's expert advice despite some disagreement on the pool. 
Some in the group felt that a small pen in the sea would have been better, but days later Dr. Tony explained that dehydrated marine mammals often were hydrated more effectively by putting them in a pool. 
However, at it entered the pool it sank to the bottom and seemed to be in shock. Group members had to keep it on the surface. Dr. Tony explained that this was normal because of the difference in density, feel, and temperature. Days and days later when I had seen correspondence from Dr Sutty from Martinique saying originally that we should keep it in the sea water and then from Steve McCulloch another world famous dolphin expert saying to expect deterioration in the pool, i asked Dr Tony about the pool decision again. He explained that a maximum of 6 or 7 days was advisable in the pool. Some of the group felt that it wasn't a good idea to have it in the pool.
From the start, our small team made the decision that there was only one outcome that we would be satisfied with and that would be rehab and release into the wild. All of our local Antigua team was and still is against keeping marine mammals in captivity so the idea of a lifetime in captivity was always off the cards if we had a say. The other option that was spoken about by Fisheries and many others was to euthanize the baby dolphin. Not all in the group agreed with this but it was something that had to be on the cards. As one expert said, what we were doing now was not natural and that if we hadn't gotten involved, nature would have had it's way and the animal would have died and ended up feeding other creatures in the marine ecosystem. 
That being said, we were advised by Dr. Tony Mignucci to take the dolphin out of the sea where we found it on Friday 4th January and that decision created a huge ethical and moral dilemma which we have been struggling with for a week.

Originally Tony said that there was no chance at all of the dolphin being released into the wild ever again. He said "this dolphin can never be successfully released. I have a better chance of winning the lotto multiple times than this dolphin has after a future release."  I wasn't there when he said this but the others in the group were and spoke about it to me. As it was a deal breaker for the group, Dr Tony agreed initially to take it back to his Facility in Puerto Rico after blood work was done and after it had been stabilized. He agreed that after rehabbing it and getting it prepared for a release, he would release it back into the wild unless there was a medical reason which would require it to remain in captivity. Examples of that would have been things associated with organ health or other physical issues. With this semi optimistic outlook, the group organized a schedule of volunteers to look after the dolphin in the pool just off the beach where it was found and starting from 1pm on Friday 4th when it entered the pool, volunteers sat with it around the clock day and night. While Dr Tony was on his way to Antigua through the BVI, he asked if we could find a local veterinarian who would be willing to help and learn along with his team. We called Dr. Fiona Francis from the Ark and she was delighted for the opportunity and agreed to come and help. After Dr Tony arrived on Saturday evening and did blood work, it started getting more healthy in the pool. Bell Lab was amazing and did the lab work on Sunday. Bloods showed that it was in good health and was just dehydrated as he had expected. Within a few days, she was able to swim unassisted around the pool only occasionally running into trouble. This at least made her look as healthy as she had been when we found her in the bay. Every hour another volunteer would arrive to sit or stand in the pool. Because rehab and release was the only option to the majority of the group, more calls were made around the worlds searching for opinions that would show any optimism for a future release. Dr. Tony agreed to give it a try despite his position that a successful release was almost impossible.
From very early on, the St. James Club which is just around the corner agreed to cater food for the volunteers which was so helpful because all of this was so time consuming and exhausting. So far we have incurred many costs and this was really one less expense we had to account for. The bills already are in the thousands and it's just been one week! I dunno who will pay for this so far.
Very quickly after the lab results came back, it became apparent that getting it back to Puerto Rico would be impossible because of Trump's government shutdown. According to Dr. Tony, Special permits would not be processed during the shutdown and the USA/PR was off limits until they got their sh!t together. This was a huge blow because as Stephen D McCulloch, President of Ocean Experience said, Dr. Tony Mignucci was the best person for the job and it would help his facility in Puerto Rico get "dolphin accreditation" or something along those lines. Tony was there with his assistants ready to help but were being grounded by the shutdown. It was very depressing. 
With this unfortunate development, we then searched for another facility that would take the dolphin with the hope of rehabbing and releasing it into the wild. Together we spoke to facilities in Jamaica, St. Kitts,  Curacao, The Bahamas and others. Finally we found info that suggested a ten year old dolphin of a similar species was found, rehabbed and released successfully into the wild from a facility in the Bahamas. This story coming from a world famous dolphin expert, Dr. Denise Herzing, was about a ten year old Atlantic Spotted Dolphin which is a very different species according to Dr Tony Mignucci. Here is more info on that rescue, rehab and release. As you can see, not only a very different species but a very different situation as you will see in the letter from Atlantis a few paragraphs down. However, Dr Tony started speaking with the famous sailor, businessman and creator of CNN, Ted Turner who was apparently in charge of the program at Atlantis, in the Bahamas where the release happened. Originally he said he'd fly in and take the dolphin back to the Bahamas and rehab it with the goal of releasing it, and he said he'd have an emergency meeting with his people at Atlantis there in the Bahamas to discuss it and would get back to us. 
This was happening on Wednesday afternoon. Also on that day, our friendly and helpful fisheries officer requested a meeting among the core helpers/organizers. Fisheries had been so helpful up to that point and had facilitated entry for Dr. Tony, his two assistants and their equipment and was prepared to organize all permits needed in order to export it from Antigua to Puerto Rico or The Bahamas. We attended that meeting, the first proper one at 5:45pm on Wednesday 9th. Our fisheries officer essentially wanted a progress report and a clarification of the options on the table. 
Martha Gilkes of ABITPC, gave a summary of the options. 

Option 1 was the Bahamas Atlantis rehab and release option which would be a minimum of 6 more months of hand feeding using a milky mix and then potentially equally as long again teaching it how to feed on live fish. This sounded good in theory, but it was realized that the only contact so far had been with the 80 year old billionaire, Ted Turner, and I said I was worried that the offer didn't sound solid enough to me at that point. We all agreed that if it went well, then we would accept it as offered up to that point. 
I also asked Dr Tony to tell us how many Pantropical Spotted Dolphins were alive in captivity in the Americas (North, Central and South America). He said there were none. In an effort to understand the survival rates for these species in captivity, I asked him how many pantropical spotted dolphins have been put into captivity and later died. He said that all died and he wasn't sure how many but felt that over the past thirty years the number would have been a dozen or so. He explained that this species wasn't like the more hardy bottlenose dolphin and that this particular species was the weakest of the 4 others in the genus and a very "delicate" species. He said that the best outcome if kept in captivity would be 3-7 years. He didn't know if there had ever been a calf this young put into captivity.
Option 2 was putting it into a pen here in Antigua, and doing the rehab here in the hope of returning it to a pod offshore. This according to experts around the world was foolhardy and irresponsible for a multitude of reasons including an estimated cost of about US $175,000 a year. It would be seen as something experimental and too risky considering the lack of experience on hand.
Option 3 was to euthanize it and Fisheries agreed that this may have been a good option before it was taken from the sea. Some in the group thought that it was still the most humane option given that the trauma and odds of survival were stacked so much against this 6 month old dolphin. 
We agreed to wait to hear back some more specifics from the Bahamas. Once again, i said that we needed to build a sea pen to keep this poor dolphin who was sitting in limbo until a decision was made. Dr. Tony agreed that this was now night 6 and it was not good for the dolphin to keep it in the pool for much longer. However, he said that it would be taken down to the beach to let it swim there during the day.
Later that night we got this message back from the Bahamas: 

"Gentlemen – we conducted an emergency meeting today and determined the following in regards to your request for Atlantis involvement in the spotted dolphin calf rescue in Antigua.  Our stranding authorization is for the Bahamas only and thus our resources very limited, as we have just completed two successful stranding response, transport, rehab and release events.  However, we are willing to offer the following:
1.       Atlantis will certainly participate in this animal’s rescue/recovery but has no intention of keeping this animal long-term.  As is standard, we do not recommend a routine transport of dolphins younger than one (1) year old except in emergencies such as this and therefore, we would house this animal at Atlantis for at least this long.
2.       We can provide housing, medical attention and long-term care for the dolphin at our cost, and as long as needed to ensure safe transport to another qualified (industry recognized and accredited) marine mammal facility at some point in the future, dependent upon the health status of this animal.  We recognize the challenges faced by qualified U.S. institutions due to the current government shut-down, particularly as it affects this critical transport timing.
3.       In this regard, we are requesting that the Antigua government or future receiving institution assist by absorbing the air transport costs, which will be substantial.  We have received pricing for a round trip private charter jet out of Ft. Lauderdale for a 3 hour flight time (Nassau/Antigua) at $30,000.
4.       Due to this animal’s young age, lack of early exposure and acquisition of survival skills at a critical period in its behavioral development, need for familiar surroundings and familial protection from predators, we do not recommend experimental “wild” release of this animal in the future as it will have little chance of survival.
5.       We highly recommend that a long-term housing facility be located and the animal transported directly there, to prevent further disruption of this animals important socialization/developmental/health needs.
6.       Should you choose to request the housing/care option from Atlantis, we cannot obtain CITES permits until late Friday at the earliest due to tomorrow’s holiday here.  Therefore, air transport cannot be arranged until Bahamas government authorizes.  This may take valuable time that should not be spared. 

Let me know if you have questions."
This letter was not a shock to me but for the team was totally demoralizing and a big surprise. There was so much hope up until this point and a meeting was called for yesterday morning at 10:00am to discuss next option.
10:00am on Thursday 10th a meeting where the core group once again met to discuss options. This time instead of fisheries, we had someone from the Government who had 10 years of study abroad in various different Environmental fields and who had 15 years of work experience with our local Fisheries department, Environment Division and National Parks Authority. She made it abundantly clear that in her professional opinion, we needed to consider option 3 as discussed the night before. She said that this was her personal opinion based on all the info and on her various related degrees and her 15 years of environmental work, and it was the most natural thing to do. Any other decision was being made for the benefit of humans in an emotional capacity. Four others at the meeting completely agreed with her for a multitude of reasons including simply it being the most humane thing to do at this point. Another thing she said which i think is the best advise given so far is that we need to develop local guidelines for future strandings that could be endorsed by Fisheries. For example, these could have a list of species, their conservation status and the chances or stats of rehab and release. This will happen again as it has happened before and we need to have solid plans for what to do next time. Many feel that taking it out the water was the wrong thing to do from day one, but with the limited info we had, it was felt that we had to try to help especially with the advice from Dr. Mignucci.
Dr Tony was not happy with the idea of euthanasia and said he would not help anyone with putting "a healthy dolphin" down. He said we came here to save it and did that but wouldn't help kill it. He also said that a swim with dolphin park in St. Kitts, Dolphin Discovery had agreed to take it with the understanding that they would attempt to rehab and release it. He told us that they wouldn't put it with their other dolphins until some special virus test was done and in the meantime they would have to find something to keep her. There was not a great deal of trust or confidence for the facility in St Kitts for some reason (maybe because of stuff like this) and some of the team thought that this could be an option. I said that at the end of the day, the dolphin didn't belong to any of us and that the decision rested with Fisheries. I felt that we needed to give them all the facts and let them decide what to do since there wasn't a consensus within our group. It had been an emotional rollercoaster and people were exhausted and drained. There was no clear agreement on the options. I categorically am against and always have been against marine mammals being kept in captivity and especially for the purpose of recreation. I think a goldfish in your aquarium is very different to an intelligent marine mammal being stuck in a pool for the rest of it's life. I had a hard time with the idea of humanly killing it too, and that was the kinda job and decision that needed to be taken by a Vet or fisheries officer. Either way, it was an impossible decision for me personally because i knew that the best best possible outcome of sending it to a marine mammal center or dolphin park was a few years in a walled tank until it died. The stats were there to show this to be true, so i couldn't support it and felt that it would only help one of these parks with their PR which would show us send them a dolphin to be "saved". Already, with the utmost respect to Dr. Tony, he is saying he and his team saved it. I know that's what he thinks, but in my opinion, he didn't. He has kept it alive and it is doing as good now as when we first found it in the sea.
Ultimately we wrote to Fisheries telling them that Atlantis fell through and that we didn't feel that we could make a decision on what to do next mainly because there were strong differences of opinion on what we should do. We also reminded them that something had to be done because it was now 7 nights in a pool. Dr Tony wrote to fisheries asking them to release it into his custody so that he could export it to the St. Kitts facility. It is my understanding that this permission has been granted by fisheries and while I disagree with this decision, it's not mine to make. The dolphin will likely leave Antigua on Monday after 10 nights in a swimming pool. I for one think this is not a humane or sensible solution and several others who helped around the clock over the past week have dropped out at this point leaving responsibility with Dr. Tony Mignucci. Some of the core group feel that this is a bad decision in the grand scheme of things. We will see what happens to the little dolphin next.
All I can say is that I have had experience with saving marine species since i was a kid with my dad back then and without him as an adult. Recently we saved a 25 foot long sperm whale that was attempting to beach itself. Knowing what to do with wild animals is never an easy thing, but this has been the most difficult ethical and moral dilemma I have come across.

edit Jan 12th, 2019
At 10:40am today I received a call from a close friend who was offshore fishing. He was alongside a pod of what he described as "spotted dolphins". He sent me the GPS coordinates and I passed them on to the original whatsapp group that's been used to coordinate this event. Forty minutes later I asked for comment and then later at 11:54am Fisheries said that is was too late now and that they wouldn't agree to taking the calf there at this stage. 

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