Why We Can’t Save Every Stranded Dolphin

Stories like the Gowanus Dolphin grab worldwide attention, but rescuing a wayward dolphin isn't always the most humane thing to do.

A man reaches down to pat a dolphin as it struggles along a bulkhead in the headwaters of the Gowanus Canal as others look on in Brooklyn, New York, on January 25, 2013. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Judging by last week’s high-profile death of a common dolphin in Brooklyn’s filthy Gowanus Canal, it seems that everyone really does want to “save the whales.” And though the deeply humane impulse to jump in the water and rescue a marine mammal that is lost, sick or stranded is laudable, it is not always the best course of action for the animal, scientists and wildlife rescue experts say.

Given the animal’s condition, not interfering was the most humane thing to do. I would recommend that you look at what happened not from the point of view of what would have made you feel better, but what was best for the dolphin.

Each marine mammal stranding is unique, and there is no blanket protocol for how to deal with them all. Some animals require immediate veterinarian intervention, some need removal from the site, some require human assistance while they wait for the tide to free them, some need to be euthanized, and some, sad to say, should be left alone by people in order for nature to take its course.

But the decision on whether, when, and how to intervene is often delayed by government red tape, hampered by a lack of resources and rescue facilities, and almost always agonizingly difficult. The case of the lost dolphin of Brooklyn, an adult male who died in the canal several hours after first being spotted, is no exception.

The moment I saw the dolphin—I live two blocks from the canal—I knew it was in deep trouble and probably would not survive. His dorsal fin was scraped and bleeding, he was clearly disoriented, respiring rapidly in an apparent sign of stress, and dragging his body through gray-green industrial sludge that rose up around him in toxic underwater clouds. Clearly, this animal was in trouble long before he wandered into the dirty, frigid Gowanus.

Of course, the bizarre sight of a beautiful sea creature struggling in the water just blocks from downtown Brooklyn and the bars and cafes of Park Slope attracted a lot of attention and became the number-one news story in a busy and jaded metropolis. The canal area was crowded with NYPD officers, marine rescue officials, reporters and curious onlookers.

And like many of the people around me, I was mystified and outraged why someone wasn’t doing something. It was a horrible, helpless sensation and our collective hearts (New Yorkers actually do have feelings) went out to this poor, lost creature.

The police said there was nothing they could do, and the animal rescue people told me they were under orders by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has jurisdiction over these situations, to wait for high tide at around 7 p.m. that evening, observe the animal, and otherwise do nothing.

The lack of a response sparked outrage in many marine-mammal advocate circles. Many were angry at the rescue officials, but some people (though certainly not all) openly blamed the bystanders, myself included, for not trying to help the dolphin on our own.

FaceBook lit up with comments on both sides of the issue, including on the page for my book Death at SeaWorld.

“I think people could have, and should have” intervened, one observer wrote. ”I have seen people in this city bravely crossing boundaries and breaking laws, risking their own lives and health, to save people and animals struggling to survive. We stood by and watched, and it's shameful.”

But another commenter, who said they were “a bunny hugger who loves animals more than most,” wrote that, “STILL it is not worth my life to save an animal. Sorry if that pisses people off. Anyone who thinks you all should have jumped in that freezing, toxic water is lacking in a big dose of common sense.”

I uploaded my own post on the discussion. “I must say, there was very little that the bystanders could have done that day,” I wrote. “Where I was standing, the canal is completely closed off by 10-foot chain link fencing, some of it with razor wire on it. There were cops absolutely everywhere to make sure no one climbed over.”

After I left, the dolphin moved to a slightly more accessible section of the canal, and an unidentified man climbed down to comfort the animal from the bulkhead at the water’s edge.

“But even he did not enter the water, and he did not try to save the dolphin,” I wrote. “If he had jumped in, he would surely have gotten stuck in the several feed of sludge at the bottom of the canal—so toxic that he may have died too. Also, it was 15-18 degrees outside and the water was probably in the low 40s. One could die within in minutes of entering it.”

And of course, once in the canal, “how would he get the dolphin out?” I asked. “It was several feet from the water surface to the bulkhead. And where would you put the animal? People need to realize there was very little that ordinary citizens could do. This was not like finding an animal in shallow water on a beach...we all wanted to help, but we really couldn’t.”

We couldn’t help, but clearly the animal rescue experts on site could. Should they have?

Those officials are part of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, which operates the New York State Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program, the only authorized organization of its kind in the entire state. Founded in 1996, the program has helped rescue more than 4,000 sea turtles and marine mammals, including whales and dolphins, many from depleted or endangered populations.

According to the group’s website, “Every attempt is made to rehabilitate and release live stranded animals back to the wild. Trained volunteers and staff … provide assistance and care to over 150 animals a year, many of which are successfully returned to their ocean home.”

Riverhead was also involved in the late December beaching, in Breezy Point, Queens, of a mature finback whale, which also died onsite. Kimberly Durham, the group’s rescue program director, performed necropsies on the whale and the Gowanus dolphin and determined that both were in poor health before they got stuck. Neither would have benefited from veterinarian intervention, she said.

The dolphin was about 25 years old, which is the average life expectancy for the species, had no food in his stomach and was riddled with kidney stones, parasites and ulcers. The likelihood for survival was nil, Durham said, adding that, “His fate was determined before he got to that Brooklyn canal.”

So the dolphin had no chance at survival and, in this case, any type of rescue would have proven futile in the end. On the other hand, no one knew that at the time. Which leaves us with the original question: Should officials have attempted to rescue the animal, and if so, what should they have done?

Dr. Diana Reiss, a leading expert on dolphin behavior, a psychology professor at Hunter College and part of the graduate program of Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience of the City University of New York, has mixed feelings about how Riverhead handled the incident. Reiss has worked extensively on cetacean rescue and rehabilitation in California, including the famous rescues of Humphrey the humpback whale who wandered into San Francisco Bay, twice, as well as the rescue of other dolphins and whales.

Reiss was rushing to the scene when she got word of the animal’s death.

“I was extremely concerned that the dolphin was not removed from the canal earlier in the day when it would have been less compromised,” she told TakePart. “Why weren’t more active measures taken to help this dolphin earlier in the day?”

But each situation has its own set of challenges, Reiss explained. “There are many unknowns about the health of these animals who strand or suddenly appear in our waterways or beaches. How sick and compromised are they? How will they react to being handled in our attempts to rescue them? Are they sick or have they just gotten disoriented? If left alone, will they go back out to sea with the next high tide?”

Reiss spoke with the director and senior biologist of the Riverhead Foundation, Robert DiGiovanni, Jr., who explained some of the reasons behind the decision to “remain hands off” and wait for high tide.

First came NOAA, which has “established guidelines and standard protocols they follow in strandings and before rescue attempts are implemented,” Reiss said. “Rescue organizations and government personnel are told to observe and monitor the behavior and movement of the animals for a period of time and no attempts should be made to remove the animal when it is in shallow waters until the first high tide, to give the animal a chance to swim back out to sea on their own accord. This is a well-conceived, rational and practical idea.”

But, Reiss added, “There were other issues at play—important issues. And not all rules should apply in all cases… This animal was struggling and appeared to be in distress. It could have been removed from the canal earlier and taken to the Riverhead Foundation rescue site for medical assessment and care—or it needed, it could have been removed and humanely euthanized right there on the spot.”

The problem was, shockingly, there was no place where the dolphin could have been taken. New York State has just one small pool dedicated to cetacean rehab—at the Riverhead facility, more than three hours by road from Brooklyn. But that pool is currently occupied by a rescued porpoise. The only other facility, the NY Aquarium in Brooklyn’s Coney Island section, was severely damaged by superstorm Sandy and is inoperable, Reiss said.

“I was told that the only real option would have been to euthanize the dolphin if it was removed earlier because there was no place to take it for medical care,” Reiss said. “And this is the big problem. Government funding for marine mammal rescue centers like Riverhead is being diminished or threatened.”

A former Northeast region stranding team member, who asked not to be identified, told me that working with the Riverhead Foundation in the past had been “very positive, but also frustrating: The lack of support from the public, high turnover rate of staff and volunteers, leads to an overworked core group of dedicated people.”

And though this observer rated Riverhead as one of the best of its kind in the nation, “NOAA makes the call, unless the dolphin actually is on the beach, and it’s hard to judge this call given the conditions. I would like to know if anyone probed the bottom to see if it was firm enough to support a rescue attempt. Also I would like to know if NOAA was watching the live feed and, if not why? It may have helped them decide the best course.”

Then there is the question of danger to the rescuers themselves. Whales and dolphins can bite and rake with their teeth, and they can slam and ram with their bodies, fins, flukes and rostrums. They are not Flipper, trained to tolerate people. They are creatures from the wild. Some respond well to rescue attempts, many do not.

“I was seriously injured during a cetacean rescue attempt—I was beaten unconscious by a sperm whale calf,” my source said. “A bigger and more serious threat is zoonotic diseases. You never know what these animals are sick with. The public' s concerns are quite valid, but the vitriol is demoralizing for those of us who have dedicated their lives to, and risked their lives for, these animals.”

Finally, many scientists believe that, in most of these situations, human intervention is undesirable, no matter how feasible it might be to do something.

“Trying to rescue this dolphin would probably have simply hastened its death,” said Humane Society International Senior Scientist Naomi Rose, “which could be seen as merciful, but it would have been a very stressful last few moments—more so than it already was—if a bunch of people had been gathered around it trying to manhandle it out of the water while it was in its death throes.”

Generally speaking, Rose added, “when a lone dolphin is in this sort of condition, it is moribund—it is dying. And we can only watch. That is the protocol.”

Of course it is hard to stand and watch as an innocent animal dies, Rose said. “I get that, but it’s odd how people can’t project properly when it comes to animals. Rather than project what they would want other people to do for them, they should project how they would feel if aliens did what they want to do for the dolphin. They would see it as abduction even if the aliens meant well. They wouldn’t understand that the metal probes and bright lights and spaceship were all about rescuing them.”

“There are obviously success stories out there, but they are few and far between compared to the ones where the animal died in the end,” Rose continued. “I honestly am conflicted about what to do when a cetacean strands, but I do know that the best choice is always trying to refloat it—and if that doesn’t work, euthanasia on the beach is probably the best choice.”

Meanwhile, in this case, hoisting the dolphin from the water “would have caused stress,” Rose said. “Just because handling and removal from the water is done with love doesn't make it any less traumatic for the dolphin. I hate to say it, but given the animal's condition, not interfering was the most humane thing to do. I would recommend that you look at what happened not from the point of view of what would have made you feel better, but what was best for the dolphin.”

Cetacean rescue can be a highly emotional event. Last week, I wrote about a diver in Hawaii who helped a dolphin disentangle itself from fishing line, and this video on YouTube shows a dramatic and heartwarming rescue of a young humpback whale from a Mexican fishing net.

But back in the chilly waters off New York, the debate over how and when to help cetaceans in distress will probably grow louder and more intense, with any luck. It is, to put it simply, outrageous that such a large, rich state with so many miles of marine coastline should have but one small pool where rescued marine mammals can recuperate.

“This is a real problem because dolphins and whales in our waters face threats and stressors such as anthropogenic noise, anthropocentric and natural neurotoxins and pollutants in the water, and ship strikes,” Reiss said. All that, and changing weather patterns, will only bring more strandings, and more agonizing decisions.

“In my opinion, it is very sad that this dolphin was not treated earlier, but I hope that the situation is a clarion call for the real need for government funding,” Reiss said, “and now, for marine mammal rescue centers, so they can provide quick and active care for future dolphins and whales in need of rescue.”

Unfortunately, in today’s budget-cutting political climate, it’s hard to imagine Congress approving increased taxpayer funding for NOAA (part of the Commerce Department) to finance new rehabilitation centers for rescued marine animals.

So who can take up the slack and provide the millions in private funding needed to complete the task? This seems like it would be a great time for multimillion-dollar corporations—SeaWorld comes to mind—to step up to the fiscal plate and help states like New York rehabilitate more than one cetacean at a time.

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