Stephen McCulloch wants his job back. A prominent master of the arcane art of dolphin rescue, for more than a decade, he was a leader and key force at the Marine Mammal Program at FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI). On February 14, he was fired.
McCulloch has filed a grievance against the school, asking to be reinstated, and has an April 29 hearing scheduled. McCulloch discussed his situation at great length with New Times. School officials -- despite an initial news release outlining their case in some detail -- have treated the matter as confidential.
McCulloch's troubles began with a dolphin rescue under duress. According to a January 6 letter from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), 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, so regulations required that McCulloch get the feds' approval to move the animal to be euthanized and studied. A sudden, severe rainstorm moved in, however, and he moved it to a nearby swimming pool.
The NMFS letter described McCulloch's unauthorized transport of the dolphin and his failure to notify Sea Oaks management of health risks as "egregious violations." (Morbillivirus is not transmissible to humans, but dolphins infected with it can develop secondary infections that may be transmissible.) For that, the Fisheries Service suspended HBOI from marine mammal rescue for 30 days and placed the institution on probation for a year.
The NMFS did not, however, ask that McCulloch be fired. That was FAU's decision.
FAU media representatives have refused to discuss the matter, citing "a long-standing policy of not commenting on personnel actions." In a January 24 official statement, however, the school repeated the "egregious violations" language, 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.)
Privately, in a January 24 notice of proposed termination, the school again recounted the NMFS findings and dismissed McCulloch's rebuttal.
"You attempt to convince the reader that you acted in the animal's best interest and protected the bystanders," FAU Interim Provost Gary Perry wrote. "The evidence and your actions contradict these statements."
On February 14, following a pre-disciplinary hearing with FAU officials, the school fired McCulloch for "substandard, incompetent, unprofessional or incomplete performance;" "falsification of records;" and "violation of safety practices."
According to McCulloch, no eyewitnesses to the Sea Oaks stranding were interviewed by FAU. If that is so, it appears the school's only first-hand "evidence" of the event is a brief YouTube video posted by a bystander. The video has been taken down but, according to McCulloch, he and the school have copies.
McCulloch describes the video as "highly subjective and based solely on the viewer's interpretation...less than 5 minutes of a 13-hour event." He told New Times the video had been reviewed by three marine mammal experts, including Robin Friday and Mark Simmons, who "saw nothing wrong with what I did."
Two individuals who were present at Sea Oaks have written to FAU in support of McCulloch. One wrote:
When Mr.McCulloch first came on the scene, most of the people helping the dolphin had been in the water for half an hour to two full hours. Mr. McCulloch wasted no time making sure that all of us gathered on the beach were comfortable, warm, and educated as to what the dolphin needed.
Another, following a detailed description of the anxieties of the day, concluded:
Through this entire ordeal, I was so impressed with Mr. McCulloch's handling of all the factors in play: assuaging the concerns of animal welfare champions, educating children and keeping them out of harm's way, continually monitoring the dolphin's vital signs, communicating with his team...[he] obviously knows how to take care of dolphins, but his public relations and emergency management skills were some of the most masterful I've ever seen.
McCulloch's many other supporters include prominent members of the scientific and marine mammal community, warning that FAU's loss of McCulloch would be a blow to Harbor Branch's reputation and, in one's words, "a catastrophic loss" for FAU's students.
McCulloch is putting a good face on his pursuit, asserting his belief a reunion is possible. "I'm keeping to the high road," he wrote to New Times in an email. "I need to move forward in a positive fashion... so I want to remain relevant, rational, respectful and passionate. ...It's always better to keep your eye on the doughnut, and not on the hole. Looking to expedite an amicable resolution, so we can get back to the mission the State granted us in 1998."
McCulloch's attorney, Barry Silver, a crusader on environmental and social justice issues, was more combative. In an email, he wrote:
Before making the harsh and damning conclusion that Steve falsified a record, did they ever consider Steve's explanation, i.e., that in the storm he lost contact via cell phone and was a bit preoccupied with trying to help a dolphin and deal with numerous onlookers... [Steve's] scenario is consistent with the facts and internally consistent as well, whereas the version of his accusers is riddled with inconsistencies and trumped-up charges....There is no witness contradicting anything Steve said and nothing on the video contradicts him either.
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.