Saving Cupid

Visiting a sea-mammal rescue team in Galveston, I learned about the puzzling phenomenon of stranding—and flipped for a dolphin in rehab.

RIDING THE FERRY BETWEEN GALVESTON Island and the Bolivar Peninsula late this summer, I counted 28 bottlenose dolphins frolicking near the ship channel. A day earlier, Della Phillips, aboard the ferry on her way to do volunteer work for a dolphin-rescue network in Galveston, had counted 40 of these winsome creatures. My guess is that Texans who live in, say, Amarillo, Dallas, or Wink aren’t aware that our coast is home to a large dolphin population, yet there are nine species of dolphins in our waters, not to mention eighteen species of toothed and baleen whales and the occasional lost manatee. If dolphins can thrive in the chaos and gunk of Galveston Bay, I speculated, they could probably thrive anywhere, even Amarillo, Dallas, or Wink.

Alas, I would learn that life for sea mammals is not so accommodating. Every year at least two hundred dolphins and whales get stranded on Texas beaches. I had come to Galveston to investigate the phenomenon of stranding, one of nature’s fascinating puzzles, and maybe swim with a 199-pound dolphin named Cupid, rescued last Valentine’s Day. Who among us has not dreamed of swimming with dolphins?

For nearly seven months, Cupid had been undergoing rehabilitation in a tank at the Galveston headquarters of the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Most of the stranded dolphins and nearly all of the whales that are reported to the TMMSN are dead or dying before rescue teams can get to them. Cupid was one of a lucky few. A fisherman named Christopher Cruse had found him floundering in the surf off Bryan Beach, near Freeport. Separated from his mother, probably for the first time, the eighteen-month-old dolphin was disoriented, stressed, hungry, and badly dehydrated. Dolphins get water by metabolizing protein from their fish diet, and Cupid hadn’t eaten in a while. Fortunately, Cruse did exactly what the TMMSN recommends: With help from a bystander, he dragged the dolphin up onto the beach, then called the network’s hotline, 1-800- 9MAMMAL. Had Cruse pushed the dolphin back toward deep water, it would have drowned, been eaten by sharks, or at best, stranded itself again farther up the beach. Sea mammals that strand themselves are almost always sick or injured. Stranding is a last-ditch effort at escaping predators.

While waiting for the rescue team, Cruse and others kept the dolphin’s skin moist and tried to make him comfortable. Though they breathe the same air we do, marine mammals deprived of the buoyancy of water can suffocate under their own weight. Three hours after he was first sighted, Cupid was transported to Galveston and placed in one of the network’s rehabilitation tanks. He was so weak that for the first 72 hours, volunteers in wet suits braved the chilly 40-degree weather and literally cradled him in their arms. “The first few days of rehab are always critical,” Tammy Renaud, the TMMSN’s state operations coordinator, told me.

By day three Cupid was swimming on his own. The staff took blood samples twice daily, analyzing them to determine his nutritional needs and rule out morbillivirus, a highly contagious disease similar to distemper in dogs. Four or five times a day they fed Cupid a mixture of fatty herring and a lean fish called capelin, with antibiotics, calcium, antacids, and vitamins thrown in. Cupid put on weight and seemed to improve. But there were signs that he suffered from a neurological disorder or had perhaps had a small stroke. His body curved unnaturally to the right, and he didn’t see well out of his right eye. Sometimes he appeared disoriented, especially when he was sleeping. Dolphins continue to swim while asleep, keeping one eye open and half of their brain active as a guard against predators (the dolphin’s brain is as large as a human’s, only more complex). But Cupid swam in crazy patterns, on his side or belly up. Other times he simply sank like a rock. “He was having episodes similar to epilepsy,” Richard Henderson told me one afternoon as we watched Cupid use his beak to bat a soccer ball over the side of his tank. A Galveston veterinarian who also works with Moody Gardens (but whose usual patients are dogs, cats, and the odd pet turtle), Henderson had gotten some experience working with dolphins at Sea-Arama, the island’s marine park, before it closed in 1988. “When there is a major problem,” he said, “I call the medical team at SeaWorld in San Antonio. They’re the experts; I’m just the guy in this little MASH unit.”

Rescued dolphins fall into three categories: those that can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, those that are too young to have learned survival skills, and those that are impaired. Cupid fit the latter two descriptions. The only option was to rehabilitate him for a life of permanent captivity. “Eventually we concluded that if we returned him to the ocean he would be shark bait,” explained Daniel Cowan, the state director of the TMMSN. We were talking in his office on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he is a professor of pathology. Cowan first got interested in sea mammals when he was a naval medical officer in Antarctica in 1961, and he later spent time at a whaling station in Newfoundland. Over the years, these creatures became his avocation, and he has written many scientific papers on their pathology. When I remarked that it was curious that a professor of human pathology would study animal pathology as a hobby, Cowan smiled and said, “I’m an amateur in the classic sense of doing it because I like it. Charles Darwin was an amateur in that respect.”

Later he told me, “Animals in the wild must behave normally or else they attract predators. They instinctively mask their impairment—right up to the moment they crash.” That’s what had happened to a dolphin called Corky, rescued on Padre Island in April 2002. Corky didn’t appear to be seriously injured, and he tested negative for morbillivirus. He gained

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