Dolphin Rescue Program at FAU in a Shambles? Harbor Branch Director Slams Critics
In the aftermath of his February firing by Florida Atlantic University, Stephen McCulloch, who founded and for 16 years led the school's marine mammal rescue program, claims the program has fallen apart. Last week, his complaints were picked up and amplified by the Vero News.
In a May 15 article, "Marine Mammal Rescue Program Near Collapse,"News reporter Steven Thomas wrote that the program "has fallen apart in the wake of dolphin guru Steve McCulloch's controversial firing by [Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute] Interim Director Megan Davis." (HBOI was absorbed by FAU in 2007.)
According to Thomas, all but one of five personnel involved in the program have quit, key facility repairs have been left undone, and "speculation has arisen" that the firing was "merely a pretext" so that "others can control the revenue streams" from a specialty-license-plate program that McCulloch created that brings the school $3 million a year. In the alternative, Thomas wrote, "others believe" the firing resulted from "petty institutional politics."
School officials had been largely silent on the McCulloch firing, describing it as "a personnel matter" and going so far as to hold McCulloch's grievance hearing behind closed doors -- even though McCulloch offered to forgo his confidentiality rights. It took Thomas' prose to elicit a detailed, public response from the school, a response like a two-by-four upside the reporter's head.
Here's the email Davis sent to Thomas, which includes an earlier email from HBOI media rep Carin Smith, cc'd to Davis:
----Original Message----- From: Megan Davis
To: thomasorng Cc: milt ; pieter32963 Sent: Thu, May 15, 2014 4:50 pm Subject: RE: journalist inquiry
Steve, I read your article that came out today regarding Steve McCulloch, which I found to be disappointing and one-sided. It is unfortunate that you chose not to report both sides of this story after you requested to hear from us. Your article lacked the factual information with which my staff and I worked hard to provide you. For example:
The rehabilitation pool at Harbor Branch...has been drained, awaiting repairs that may never come.
My response to question number 3 below is a direct contradiction to this statement: Right now we are working on repairs to the pool pipes that have leaks. We are also making some revisions to the filtration system which are almost complete.
The sole remaining person, to whom Davis has given the title marine mammal specialist, previously functioned as McCulloch's assistant.
In my response to question number 1, I do not say that Steve Burton was McCulloch's assistant, in fact, I explain that he was hired to coordinate strandings and volunteers. He has more than 17 years of experience in the marine mammal field.
Today, only Burton remains.
My response to question number 2 is a direct contradiction to this statement: HBOI marine mammal faculty, staff and a group of 31 volunteers assist with strandings. Our program has continued to do excellent work after Mr. McCulloch's departure, participating in five stranding events and assisting six animals.
Vero Beach 32963 tried to interview Davis for this article but she was not available. We exchanged emails with you Steve. I made myself available to you and provided answers to all of your questions.
In addition, it appears that your personal opinion is weaved throughout the story, since there are no sources cited:
...but he is not perceived as an expert by the marine mammal community (source?) and, in any case, his several years' experience carrying McCulloch's tools pales in comparison (source?)
... expressing shock and outrage at his dismissal for a single minor breach of protocol (source?)
Davis is sticking to her guns. She is determined to get rid of McCulloch. (source?)
There appears to have been no attempt on your part to fairly and accurately report this story. Given this exchange and the resulting one-sided article, which is not the first of its kind from you on this issue, I am reluctant to accommodate future requests from you. The lack of integrity in this report is both surprising and disheartening. We appreciate the good reporting you've done on Harbor Branch in the past and hope we can find a way to resolve this situation.
Here's the earlier email:
From: Carin Smith Sent: Monday, May 12, 2014 10:23 AM To: 'Steve Thomas' Cc: Megan Davis Subject: RE: journalist inquiry
Below are the follow-up responses you requested. We look forward to our feedback being included in your coverage.
1. What is Steve Burton's background and training? How long has he worked in marine mammal rescue and what degrees or other credentials does he have?
Steve Burton was hired in 2010 to coordinate the marine mammal stranding and volunteer program at HBOI. He is well-versed in all aspects of strandings and we have the utmost confidence in his ability to perform this job.
2. Are there any other employees in the marine mammal rescue program besides Burton, or is he a one-man show who depends on outside experts from other institutions and volunteers to carry out rescues?
HBOI marine mammal faculty, staff and a group of 31 volunteers assist with strandings. Our program has continued to do excellent work after Mr. McCulloch's departure, participating in five stranding events and assisting six animals. This included a dolphin disentanglement and assisting the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission with a manatee calf rescue.
The program's successes are due to the hard work of several dedicated staff members and not the actions of a single person. Marilyn Mazzoil is the lead for photo identification of dolphins; Adam Schaefer is lead for the dolphin population health and epidemiology; and Dr. Gregory O'Corry-Crowe is lead for population biology and behavioral ecology.
3. Is the rehabilitation pool at HBOI functional? If not, are there plans to repair it? If there are plans to repair it, do you have a timeframe for when it will be fixed.
There have been some issues on and off with the pool filtration system (aka life support system) for the past several years. The pool was built in the 1970's and we continually maintain the life support systems and pool to keep it up to date and functional. Right now we are working on repairs to the pool pipes that have leaks. We are also making some revisions to the filtration system which are almost complete. 4. As I understand it the HERA program at HBOI is defunct. Is t any thoughts on this? [Missing text]
In an email to New Times, McCulloch rebutted FAU's assertions, reasserting his previous claims, which the Vero News had more or less parroted. In a follow-up message, he threw the school's words (those of FAU media rep Lisa Metcalf) back in its face:
...when I read what Lisa (who used to enjoy working with me) wrote... It is the exact description of how Megan and FAU have treated me... "Blatant omissions," "other inaccuracies," "does not accurately reflect reality"...and supports the prejudice that Megan and FAU staff brings to the topic... Truly ironic how the facts get spun in the wrong direction.
Neither the Vero News nor its reporter Steven Thomas has replied to New Times' request for comment.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.