Turns out that a diet of beer and hot dogs—though theoretically appetizing—is just as harmful to dolphins as it is to humans, especially when it encourages bad behavior in the former.
Just like the dog who has learned to eye dinner scraps at the table, Beggar the dolphin developed an ultimately fatal habit of approaching humans in Sarasota, Florida—a habit that was reinforced and enabled by boaters feeding the bottlenose dolphin an unhealthy diet of, among other things, hot dogs, beer, fruit, shrimp, and squid. His learned unnatural behavior is believed to have contributed to his death. Beggar was recently found floating dead near Albee Road Bridge. He was about 20 years old.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, feeding and petting wild dolphins is illegal, and punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and and a year in jail per violation. That didn’t stop curious humans from luring Beggar—a dolphin famous in the area for being one of the most observed and ill-fed of his kind—to their boats with food unfit for dolphins.
The feeding drastically altered Beggar’s behavior, leaving him more susceptible to injury from boats he tried to approach. A necropsy performed on Beggar’s body revealed multiple watercraft inflicted wounds and a stomach filled with items not normally included in a dolphin’s diet such as fishing hooks, strands of fishing line, and squid beaks, as well as several ulcers of varying severity. He also had multiple broken ribs and vertebrae and was dehydrated—probably because he wasn’t eating the normal dolphin diet that would provide him with the hydration he needed. While no single cause of death could be determined, Beggar’s necropsy suggests that humans had a hand in it.
Twenty years of age is the average lifespan of a dolphin, but steady observation of Beggar revealed that human interference may have dramatically reduced his quality of life. In 100 hours, Dr. Katie McHugh of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program documented 3,600 interactions between Beggar and humans with up to 70 interactions an hour, 169 attempts to feed him 530 different kinds of food, which included hot dogs and beer, and 121 attempts to touch him resulting in 9 bites (probably because he thought people’s fingers looked like little Vienna sausages). Rather than spend time with other dolphins, Beggar spent his days hounding humans for food. When law enforcement was present on the water, humans were less likely to approach Beggar and, consequently, Beggar was more likely to forage for food on his own like a normal dolphin.
But while Beggar’s death is a sad reminder of how humans can have devastating effects on wildlife, more tragic is the violent demise of a dolphin shot to death in Louisiana. Conservationists are offering a $1,500 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer of a bottlenose dolphin found dead at Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge. The dolphin died of a gunshot wound just behind its blowhole—the bullet was found in its lung. Similarly, another dolphin was found stabbed with a screwdriver off the coast of Alabama earlier in the summer season. No arrests have been made in either case, but once the perpetrators are found, justice is sure to be swift. Just as the Marine Mammal Protection Act outlaws the feeding and touching of dolphins, it delivers the same harsh penalties for those who harass, harm, or kill wild dolphins.
What do you think could be done to prevent dolphin deaths like Beggar’s? More education or more policing? Can we trust humans to respectfully admire dolphins on their own?
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Liz Acosta is a writer, artist, and activist living in San Francisco. She likes to practice what she calls "accessible activism," doing what she can to change the world. She loves dogs, photography, bicycles, IPAs, and Britney Spears.