Dolphin Guru Stephen McCulloch Fired; Uproar Ensues
Stephen McCulloch has gone into seclusion since FAU fired him last February from his job as program manager of the Marine Mammal Program at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. We haven't been able to reach him or his attorneys.
Famously self-taught and -- judging by public reaction -- charismatic, McCulloch was let go by the school (which absorbed Harbor Branch in 2007) after a late-December Vero Beach dolphin rescue gone wrong. McCulloch had to improvise and ran afoul of federal regulations. His supporters -- many of them prominent in the scientific community -- question the school's decision.
McCulloch came to his mission by an unusual path. Graduate of a military academy, in the early '70s, according to the Vero News:
[he] turned down the chance to attend West Point and took off on a six-month hitchhiking trip across the United States when he was 17. His travels eventually took him south from Virginia to the Florida Keys where he got on what he calls "the dolphin trail," capturing and training marine mammals for public display. Later, after a change of heart he does not readily discuss, McCulloch became a leader in the fight to understand and protect wild bottlenose dolphins.
10 dolphin health and environmental risk assessments, handling large, powerful animals in open water, managing a fleet of up to 12 boats with as many as 100 personnel without injury to a single participant.
In addition to his aquatic heroics, McCulloch has shown an entrepreneurial flair:
- He helped win state authorization for a series of "Protect Wild Dolphins" specialty license plates from which HBOI derives $1.65 million annually.
- He has pushed for a marine mammal teaching hospital at HBOI, so that dolphins and whales that could not be released back into the wild would remain under care and study at the Fort Pierce facility rather than be surrendered to "managed care" facilities elsewhere in the state.
Perhaps most surprisingly, despite his lack of academic credentials he has been credited as coauthor on numerous papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
So why did this seaborne superman get the boot?
According to a January 6 letter to McCulloch from the Southeast Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that oversees marine mammal conservation, McCulloch on December 28 responded to a dolphin stranding at the Sea Oaks resort community in Vero Beach. (Atlantic Coast dolphins are in the midst of an officially declared Unusual Mortality Event, dying off in outsized numbers because of cetacean morbillivirus, a disease of the lungs and brain.)
The Sea Oaks dolphin was not a candidate for rehabilitation, according to the Fisheries Service, so regulations required that McCulloch get the feds' approval to move the animal so it could be euthanized and studied. A sudden, severe rainstorm moved in, however, and in line with his responsibility to treat the dolphin humanely and protect the public from infection (morbillivirus is not transmissible to humans but dolphins infected with it can develop secondary infections which may be transmissible), he moved it to a nearby swimming pool.
The January 6 letter described McCulloch's unauthorized transport of the dolphin and his failure to notify Sea Oaks management of health risks as "egregious violations." For that, the Fisheries Service suspended Harbor Branch from marine mammal rescue for 30 days and placed the institution on probation for a year. (It's a delayed suspension, because the Unusual Mortality Event is ongoing and Harbor Branch's services are critical.)
The Fisheries Service did not, however, ask that McCulloch be fired. That, it appears, was FAU's decision.
FAU media representatives have refused to discuss the matter, citing "a long-standing policy of not commenting on personnel actions." But in an official statement repeating the "egregious violations" language the school charged McCulloch with "possibly exposing" the public to "dangerous pathogens" and said he put Sea Oaks through the trouble and expense of draining and decontaminating the pool. (According to the Vero News, HBOI picked up that tab; set them back a grand. And no one on the scene is known to have taken ill.)
McCulloch has been mum for the most part, on the advice of counsel, pending a grievance hearing. Many of his colleagues are up in arms, however.
As nicely recounted by the Vero News March 27:
Letters of support for McCulloch, many expressing astonishment at Harbor Branch's actions, have poured into the office of HBOI Interim Executive Director Megan Davis. Letters have also gone to top officials at Florida Atlantic University... and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"When I first heard about this, I was dumbfounded, I thought it was a hoax," wrote John A. Knight, an internationally known zoo and wildlife consultant, one of more than 50 veterinarians, research scientists, marine mammal rescue professionals and organization leaders who have bombarded Davis with lengthy, heartfelt letters.
"Termination of this contract is a grossly disproportionate reaction to his misdemeanor. I also fail to see how it could be to the benefit of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, or its national or international reputation."
This too from the Vero News:
Every stranding response is unique based on the species, animal's condition, weather, personal, bystanders, etc." University of Florida Aquatic Animal Health faculty member and doctor of veterinary medicine Craig A. Pelton wrote Davis a month after the vent. "Difficult decisions need to be made in difficult situations and sometimes the decisions made are not ideal or agreed on by everyone involved, but in this case no one was injured and the animal was treated humanely.
In an April 2 letter to the Vero paper, Trout described McCulloch as "the only bright spot on the East Coast and therefore the only hope that federally protected marine mammals have any hope of rescue/release."
Trout also went on the attack, claiming the fisheries service "has historically been an impediment to rescuing stranded dolphins and whales who come to our beaches for help" and "interfered with rescues by qualified rescuers." He called the agency's marine mammal rescue network "perennially mismanaged" and, explosively, charged it had:
allowed over 50 pilot whales including very viable juveniles and sub adults to die preventable drowning deaths, starvation deaths and dehydration deaths in a bungled operation in southwest Florida in January.
The context of the controversy suggests several possible explanations for FAU's harsh response to the Sea Oaks snafu and consequent Fisheries Service penalties (penalties which "several knowledgeable sources" told the Vero News amounted to "a slap on the wrist").
According to the Vero News, "Harbor Branch was founded as an independent, bootstrap institution by non-academics, and McCulloch fit in and performed outstanding service for the organization. Now that HBOI is part of FAU, though, his lack of academic credentials may be a sore spot in some people's minds."
McCulloch's personality may also be a factor. For all his brilliance -- or perhaps because of it -- he has a reputation as headstrong and proud. As one individual close to area dolphin research (who asked not to be identified) very diplomatically told New Times, "Steve is irreplaceable to the dolphin research community and the Indian River Lagoon. And from time to time, it has been evident that he knows this."
We also note that top leadership at HBOI has recently changed hands, as has that of FAU, and is under interim direction. It maybe that new and transitory leadership -- within a university that has only just emerged from a long year of public relations disasters -- is gun-shy of bad publicity and overreacted. If that's the case, firing McCulloch may only compound the problem.
That's just guess work, though. What we'd like is to hear FAU explain in more detail why it was necessary or wise to fire McCulloch and to hear his side of the story. His only public comment so far has been this statement to the Vero News:
For now, I am following a university process and wish to be respectful and responsible to all those involved. I remain positive and confident that once all the facts are made transparent, that I will be fully vindicated so that I can return to serve our community, the State and the region as I have for the past 15 years ... Regardless the outcome, this discussion needs to be more about Protecting Wild Dolphins and Whales and our shared ocean heritage than about any one person, organization or one stranding event. We all need to work together towards these important goals which will eventually define us to future generations.
Here's video of McCulloch talking about and showing images of dolphin rescue work at Harbor Branch:
(We want to thank our brethern-in-ink Jim Waymer at Florida Today and, especially, Steven M. Thomas at Vero News for their fine reporting on the McCulloch affair.)
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers public affairs and culture in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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