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Making Tough Calls with Beached Mammals

Megan Williams

Megan Williams

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Dolphin necropsy
(Megan Williams)
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Crowds swarm around stranded dolphin in New Jersey
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When marine biologist Bill McLellan heads to the shore, it's often because an animal is in trouble -- some unfortunate mammal has washed, crawled or flopped ashore on a North Carolina beach. Crowds have gathered, trying to do what they can, and McLellan, co-director of the state's stranding network, is usually not very far behind.

Although he arrives at the scene with a team of scientists and veterinarians, McLellan's first step is surprisingly basic. "I just whistle at it, really loudly," he says.

"Since these animals are all acoustically-oriented their whole life, if that animal looks at me, opens its eye and is very alert, that's a quick way to assess how that animal is doing right there on the beach," McLellan says. "If the animal doesn't open its eye, and it sits there basically flat, then that's not a good sign."

McLellan's had a dozen years with the stranding network to learn these tricks, but the animals he's used them on remain fresh in his memory.

Only months after arriving in North Carolina, he was called to help save a dolphin stranded on a remote beach. McLellan and a team of hundreds of volunteers devoted weeks to caring for the sick creature, which pretty quickly earned itself the nickname Benny. Day and night, they stood hip-deep in his pool, holding Benny, recording his vitals, trying to get him strong enough for transfer to a long-term facility.

"One day he would look really good, and the next day he wouldn't look good. And one day you'd get ready to think about the transfer and the next day he'd be kind of lethargic in the pool," McLellan says.

And despite all their efforts, Benny didn't make it. Over four months, caring for Benny cost nearly $200,000 dollars, a bill that included everything from the aquarium that housed him to the fresh fish provided by local fishermen. And all of it was donated.

It was a tough lesson for McLellan. He now feels that responders have to weigh an animal's chances for survival against the potential cost. Greater effort should be saved for most endangered species.

For the world's last 395 right whales, for example, scientists still pull out all the stops. "We're seeing these animals that are wrapped up in fishing gear. There's whole teams of folks who'll go out there and risk their lives to try to cut this gear off these animals so they have a chance to survive," McLellan says.

But right whales are the exception. Not long ago, McLellan's counterparts at the Virginia Aquarium found three deep-water dolphins struggling in a muddy tidal creek. They tried to get the dolphins to swim back out to sea, to no avail.

In the end, one of the unfortunate creatures did arrive at McLellan's lab -- for a necropsy. On the loading bay behind the biology building at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, surrounded by a cluster of students and McLellan's partner in the stranding network, Ann Pabst, the team carefully measured the creature, still so fresh and intact it could almost be a rubber museum model. It's hard to watch as a student's scalpel divides the beautiful creature into a grid of red lines.

Whenever they have to euthanize a stranded animal, Pabst says, researchers try to glean as much information as possible from the corpse. There's a moral obligation to an animal they couldn't save -- but also, due to restrictions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it's the only time researchers can legally dissect these species.

"What we'll do is we'll collect a suite of health and biological data and then work with colleagues around the country to assess those data and those tissue samples to determine the -- as best we can -- the cause of death of these animals," Pabst says.

Cause of death is important for finding out if any human actions are hurting the population, like certain fishing practices or sonar signals from boats. Data from necropsies led NOAA to propose speed limits for ships in certain areas to keep them from hitting right whales. But the information gleaned from each corpse goes far beyond the purely practical to help answer some of the most basic research questions.

"That animal can provide scientists and students with data and tissues that they can use for various studies," Pabst says. Just how did this animal make its living? What food did it eat? What sorts of diseases does it suffer? How does its body work as a mammalian body in a marine environment?

A few years back, a student investigating necropsy data from young dolphins made the rather hair-raising discovery that the animals sometimes kill their offspring. Her research ended up in a Discovery Channel documentary.

Necropsies may help scientists make sense of sea mammal strandings and give the deaths a larger purpose. But they're cold comfort for the crowds watching on the beach. When four pygmy killer whales washed ashore on Myrtle Beach, S.C., last year, police cars were needed to hold back the curious. Pabst and McLellan are often in the middle of these scenes. They've helped introduce children to the idea of death, seen punches thrown, and weathered the outcry of animal rights activists.

The situations they dread are the mass strandings, when animals may end up scattered along miles of beach. "You can't get to everybody. You can't just tell everybody what you're going to be doing," McLellan says. "I'm sure there are miscommunications at that. You try to explain that, and we do draw crowds together and have people tell them what we're up to."

It's vital for McLellan and his fellow researchers to make sure these crowds understand what's going on -- most of their work is funded through public donations. If responders begin to be seen as nothing more than hit squads, that could really hurt their budgets. So McLellan says he must always keep his audience in mind.

"It's a funny situation," he says. "Everybody tells me I look callous when I'm out there. I'm internally at war with these decisions. But if you have to make those decisions, I don't want to look like there's any doubt. We want to be very just straightforward in our response and what we're doing."

After years of responding to strandings, McLellan says he knows he's doing the right thing. The big concern now, he says, is helping the public understand why most of the desperate sea mammals they encounter on the beach will never return to the open waves.

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