Sunday, September 29, 2013

Panama's Eternal PSA

I'm privileged to know (or have known) a lot of really amazing animals.  One of the themes for this blog was to highlight some of the ones who were extra special to me.  Most of them have made their debut in The Middle Flipper Is… posts, or had entries all to their own.

From the start of this blog in 2011, I intended on writing about a dolphin named Panama for a number of reasons.  First of all, she was the very first dolphin I really got to know.  Secondly, she was deaf.  Thirdly, she was a beggar dolphin in Panama City Beach and wound up on death's door in 2000.  Additionally, she was my main coworker in the filming of Dolphin Tale and she taught me a lot about training.  Mostly because girlfriend didn't do what she didn't want to do, ever.

Panama, on my last day of work at CMA in 2011.

For those of you who are in the marine mammal field, you may already know that Panama passed away a few days ago.  She was likely in her 30s or 40s.   I felt it appropriate to make an entire entry in tribute of Panama.  More importantly, because she taught me so much, there will likely be several entries about her in the future.

But today, I figured we could talk about why Panama was where she was.  We can make a sad situation into a learning experience, and spread the message about why you shouldn't feed wild dolphins.

I first met Panama as an intern at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2005.   The aquarium's animals are all rescued animals, most of whom are deemed unreleasable.   Some of the animals are there only because of human stupidity.  Unfortunately, that is the case with Panama.

Panama and Winter, two dolphins whose injuries are 100% related to human laziness and selfishness

Her back story is interesting, but in a sad way.  As mentioned previously, she was a beggar dolphin in the hot spot for illegal wild dolphin activity: Panama City Beach.  People to this day still openly talk about feeding wild dolphins out there, whether from a boat, a dock, or in some cases, on scuba gear.

So what happened to Panama?  When she stranded, she was 100 pounds underweight.  One hundred.  That's unbelievably serious.   She had third degree burns from the sun due to the amount of time she was out of the water.  She had a life-threatening infection, which may have resulted in her deafness.  In fact, a large percentage of stranded dolphins are found to be deaf: the cause is still being explored (check out David Mann's work on the subject).  

So this poor dolphin is in awful condition, and then is identified as a beggar dolphin.  Long story short, she'd been getting food she shouldn't eat. Here's a Random Bio Fact: Dolphins should NOT eat beer, ice cream, or hot dogs.

Don't give this to a dolphin! GIVE IT TO ME!!!!

"But Cat!" you may say.  "What am I supposed to do with all of this food on my boat??"

If you have any leftover ice cream you intended on feeding to dolphins, let me first express my sincere concern with your mental well-being, because I don't think I've ever had any leftover ice cream in my life.   Don't dismay, I will accept any and all donations of human food you don't want to eat (especially if it is ice cream).  You know, just to save the wild dolphins.

Anyways, in addition to being fed human food, Panama was also served up bait fish (whole or in pieces).  Some of it had been left out in the sun for a good long time.  Dolphins are not scavengers, so like us they cannot eat rotten, bacteria-ified fish.

Sometimes, when I think about Panama (and so many other beggar dolphins' fates), I have this sinister plot that I fantasize about. It goes something like this:

Disclaimer for anyone born without a sense of humor: This is all satirical.

I see a boatload of people tripping over themselves to feed and touch wild dolphins.  They grab their sun fried and freezer burned ballyhoos and their bacteria-laden pieces of mullet (because come on, these humans are not going to feed to the dolphins their catch of the day! THAT'S THEIRS!) and dangle it above the dolphins head, trying to bait it closer to the boat so they can say they communed with a Dolphin In Its Natural Environment.

Wow, what animal lovers.

I saunter over to them (I'm not sure how I manage a saunter while on a boat), acting all friendly-like.

Me: Hey you fellow dolphin-lovers! I'd like to reward you for your noble efforts to stay away from marine parks despite your interest in interacting with dolphins.  It's great to see people go out to the ocean, and help them out by feeding them.

Boat Morons: Thanks! Yeah well, we didn't want this bait to go to waste! Plus, they only tell you you're not supposed to feed the dolphins out here because they're in the marine parks' back pockets.

Me: Well, why don't I take you out to a nice dinner to show my appreciation?

And so, we caravan back to my place.  And I sit them all down and I serve them the human equivalent of the Beggar Dolphin Diet.  It'd be stuff that would really make us feel sick, or things humans couldn't eat.  Here's a sample menu:

Stale bread and 9 month old unrefrigerated butter

Fried rotten tomatoes

A plastic bag

Filet of grouper, raw, sun-dried and aged ten hours

Steamed cardboard boxes

Breast of chicken, rare

A colorful assortment of bottle caps 

Ice-cold seawater

Boat Morons: WTF? We can't eat this stuff?  What are you trying to do, kill us? You could go to jail trying to serve us this!

Me: But I'm interested in interacting with you!!!!!!!! Shouldn't that transcend all of my ethical principles? Federal law?  My ability to empathize with something other than myself?

I assume the people would get wise before they ate any of this stuff.  Of course, I don't want any lasting damage to happen to these people, so I'd have some kind of emergency service ready to go just in case someone really had a hankering for bottle caps. 

So back to Panama: not only did she get extremely sick and almost die from the horrible stuff she was fed, but she gave up hunting.   Like so many of us, dolphins will take the easy way out if given the option.  Humans take the path of least resistance when it comes to food all the time, and I guess in that case there's nothing wrong with that, as long as no one's getting hurt.  I'm totally fine rolling up into a Tijuana Flats and having a burrito made for me, instead of you know, making my own tortilla, harvesting my own black beans, rice, lettuce, blah blah blah.

But shoot, if Tijuana Flats starts putting bits of glass into my burrito, or gives me rotten queso for my chips, I'm going to press charges, and everyone understands why that's wrong.

Alas, dolphins can find other ways of making their lives easier.  They are incredibly smart, and most species display cooperative hunting techniques.  Many coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins (especially in Florida) do not migrate.  Why? Because there are always fish to eat.  They are not starving out there.   Humans do not need to help the dolphins out any.

A photo I took a year ago of a dolphin catching his own fish.  

But what happens when humans feed dolphins?  Even if you went out there with restaurant-quality fish that is perfectly safe and nutritious for dolphins?  Well, you've stripped them and their future offspring of a wild dolphin life.   You've taught them to approach oncoming boats, instead of avoid them.  Don't believe me?  Please, just take a spin on the ol' Google machine and find pictures of dolphins who've been hit by boats.  Check out Don't Feed Wild Dolphins.  

If you see a population of wild dolphins who do NOT have a history for being fed, and you're a giant jerk, you could run your boat straight at a healthy pod of dolphins and not hit a single one.   They dive out of the way.  When you see a pod of dolphins who are used to begging for food, they will not move.  They will stay right where they are, because (sorry to burst anyone's bubble), they are not psychic and cannot tell if you're the boat that's going to feed them or not.* 

It doesn't matter how many healing crystals you have, you'll never make dolphins psychic.

And, as in the case of Panama, beggar dolphins who have calves teach their offspring how to beg, not to hunt.  So you've crippled generations of animals, not just the one or two individuals you're dealing with.   

If none of that convinces you (jerk!), know that dozens of people have been bit, fluked, and rammed by wild dolphins like mobsters coming to collect what's theirs.   What's really crappy about this is you could just be hanging out in the water, being a nice person and following the law, and a beggar dolphin comes up to you and is all like, "WHERE'S THE PROTECTION MONEY?" 

And you're like, "What? I didn't know dolphins could talk? Plus, it's illegal to feed wild dolphins."


Don't turn dolphins into this.  They look ridiculous in suits, anyway.

Come on! THINK! That's what you want to do to these animals just because you want a photo like this:


Or this:

Yeah, that's a beer.  
Or this flattering photo of the female figure:

Panama was a unique ambassador in our field.  She taught thousands of people (maybe more) about the dangers of feeding wild dolphins.  Most people don't even realize it's illegal, and even some of those people don't care until you put them face-to-face with an animal who lost so much just because of our collective selfishness.   Her story has hopefully helped others spread information, call law enforcement when they see people feeding dolphins, or verbally berate them (as I and a few others in my life have done in these circumstances).  I'd throw ice cream at them, but that's a waste.

And now, through the miracle of the internet, Panama's story and message can endure in one more way.   Thanks, lady.

* With that said, if you're the type of person who drives boats over pods of dolphins, you probably eat babies too.


  1. MUFFIN <3 I still can't believe she's gone. Idea! (not that you have to listen haha) You should do a post on anti caps and how you as a trainer deal with people that criticize having dolphins or any animal in captivity, even if they get amazing care and life (which, they do!) and if anyone has actually come up to you and told you off for being a trainer. Because I've already dealt with anti's of my own, and I'm not even a trainer yet!!

  2. I just let people have their own opinion and don't get caught up in trying to change peoples' minds. I do more talking to people who are interested in the animals and their welfare. That might mean some decide they don't agree with zoos or aquariums, but at least they care about something.

  3. I actually fed dolphins (legally) in Australia a few years ago. It was called the Tangalooma Island Resort and they had a population of dolphins that would come up to the beach every night and would be fed by the people at the resort. It was set up by marine biologists and they carefully sorted and weighed out the food every night so that the dolphins were getting quality fish and just enough that they would come back every night, but they still had to hunt for their own food most of the time. They don't allow you to touch the dolphin, you can't wear any sunscreen or perfume into the water, you can't be sick, have to remove all jewelry, clean your hands, and feed the dolphin with the fish head-first. The rules are very similar to dolphin interaction programs at marine parks. So do you think this is ethical?

    1. I've followed the story of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins you mentioned in your comment. I think that is a different situation than what I'm describing in my blog post. The big picture here is how are the dolphins affected? In the U.S., human interaction was unregulated and very detrimental to the populations of dolphins who were being fed. Are there animals washing up with deadly illnesses or injuries due to being desensitized to human activity in Australia? If the answer is no, then the program you're discussing isn't problematic. But that was absolutely not the case in the U.S.

  4. I beg to differ. Dolphins are definitely psychic.

    1. I agree. They also seem to communicate with humans "silently".

  5. When I was out in WA doing work with the southern residents, I spent a day with Soundwatch, where we gear up in bright orange survival gear and get tossed around in a zodiac for a day to chase down boats and educate them on why they should not try to chase the whales with their boat....or block their path...or try to cut them off...or take your giant inflatable mattress out and throw it on the water to lay on and create a "spiritual experience" with them. I think anyone who wants to work with marine mammals should spend one day out there, just so they can see for themselves what they are working on preventing...and then be allowed to take 5 or 6 guests with them whom have tried to argue that all the dolphins SHOULD BE FREE IN THE OCEAN LIKE A DISNEY MOVIE...and see how they act then about why we do what we do.

  6. wow this is really awesome, feeling great to see such kind of amazing stuff just loving it. Lost and found