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.

November 2003By Comments

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 weight and seemed to be rounding into shape; about two months into the dolphin’s rehab, Cowan thought he was almost ready to be released. Then, suddenly, Corky crashed and died. A necropsy revealed that the animal had hydrocephalus and a slowly developing form of meningitis, which was probably what had brought him ashore in the first place.

Cupid had been in rehab long enough that Cowan could rule out meningitis. The epilepsylike episodes, however, were probably permanent. In the meantime, it was the network’s task to condition him for life among humans. Cupid’s current home is a 32- by 17-foot tank at the back of a shabby pavilion whose roof was partly ripped off by Hurricane Claudette earlier in the summer. The pavilion is part of TMMSN headquarters, which also includes a storage area and two cramped offices on the grounds of the National Marine Fisheries Service complex behind Fort Crockett, a block north of the seawall.

Celeste Weimer, a senior marine biology major at Texas A&M at Galveston and the network’s Galveston regional coordinator, is Cupid’s trainer—and his playmate. “Dolphins are extremely social and tactile,” she explained. “They rely on touch with one another. We can at least give him a sense of companionship.” From an observation platform above the tank, I watched as Weimer slipped into her wet suit and put Cupid through his behavioral-conditioning paces. Sometimes she used hand signals. Other times she guided him with a target stick, signaling him to move in different directions or holding the stick a few feet above the surface so he had to leap to touch it with his nose. When he did what she wanted, she showed her approval with a whistle. These play sessions build trust between dolphin and trainer and keep Cupid trim and mentally alert. They also teach him to offer up a flipper when staffers need to check it and to stay calm when they ease him onto a stretcher for a weight check—or for a trip far away, where he will meet other dolphins for whom life in the wild is a distant memory.

Cupid reminded me of a large puppy, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on him. He wore the dolphin’s trademark grin but with a sardonic twist, as if he knew all my secrets. Puppies love to rub their razor-sharp teeth along your shin, without actually biting down, and Cupid was similarly inclined, the difference being that his teeth and jaws are strong enough to snap a two-by-four. At feeding time, Weimer tossed fish, one at a time, in such a way that Cupid had to chase down his meal, as he would in the wild. Cupid attacked his dinner like a terrier on a rat, holding it in his teeth and shaking it violently.

Though the staff strongly discourages treating Cupid as a pet, the temptation was irresistible. Ignoring signs warning volunteers to stay at least two feet from the edge of the tank, I leaned over the side, hoping he would swim close enough for me to pet him. Instead, he cruised in my direction and flicked his tail, soaking me with seawater. “He’s being sedate today,” Weimer told me. “Usually he’s more rambunctious.”

The pool resembled a child’s playpen; floating on the surface were small yellow rings, hula hoops, colored balls, a plastic dolphin, a yellow duck. They were there for Cupid’s amusement, to keep him occupied and out of trouble. In the wild, young dolphins get their kicks by tossing cabbagehead jellyfish, harassing grouper, and playing with sea grass. Dolphins in captivity treat their toys much the way kids treat dolls that “misbehave.” Cupid showed his displeasure with a toy by “chuffing”—blowing gusts of air through his blowhole. Dolphins sometimes adopt a favorite toy, and Cupid is especially fond of the yellow rings, trying to see how many he can get on his nose at one time. Late one night, Weimer was awakened by a phone call from a volunteer reporting that Cupid had so many rings on his nose he couldn’t open his mouth to eat. “When I got there and tried to take them off,” Weimer recalled, “he got really pissed. After that we had to take the rings out of the tank a couple of hours before feeding time.”

My swim with Cupid was brief but memorable. Actually, Cupid did all the swimming while I stood very still, Weimer a few feet away, just in case. Sensing fresh meat, he made a couple of quick passes, bumping against me with rather more force than I’d expected. This is no friggin’ puppy, a small voice warned; this is a wild beast who can break your leg with a flick of his tail. On his third pass, Cupid swam between my legs, prompting me to tuck myself into the fetal position lest he toss me over the side. The dolphin paused and popped his head above the surface, permitting Weimer to stroke his forehead, but he watched me out of the corner of his eye. “Take this,” Weimer said, handing me a stiff-bristled brush. “He loves to be brushed.” The brush worked like a charm. I discovered that I could hold him against my hip for eight or ten seconds, as long as I kept brushing. He rolled over so that I could brush his tummy, squawking with pleasure. When I climbed out of the tank after about ten minutes, my legs were trembling. “It’s a challenge staying one step ahead of this dolphin,” Weimer told me as we were drying off. “We think we’re training him, but he thinks it’s the other way around.”

Cupid’s future is uncertain. As a subject for research, he is extremely valuable, and Cowan is looking for a permanent home where he can get a good neurological evaluation. The University of Hawaii is one possibility. How will he fit in with other dolphins? Will they accept his impairment and protect him? Will they reject him? Only time will tell.

The network, which operates on a shoestring, has stretched its meager resources to get Cupid this far. Almost all of its equipment is begged or borrowed. With just three paid and four unpaid staffers, it depends on the dedication of its four hundred active volunteers, who are on call 24-7. Della Phillips, the volunteer who counted forty dolphins from the ferry, gets up at five o’clock two mornings a week for the nearly-three-hour drive from her home in Lumberton, in eastern Hardin County. Funds dribble in. Experts such as Cowan donate both time and money. A large part of the network’s mission is research, but it has to make do with a tiny lab down the hall from Cowan’s office. “There are no marine research facilities on the Texas coast like Woods Hole in Massachusetts or Mote Marine in Florida,” Cowan told me. The TMMSN needs permanent rehab pools, diagnostic equipment, a lab, and many other things. But its potential is great. For instance, state operations coordinator Tammy Renaud, a psychologist and an occupational therapist, believes that dolphins could be invaluable assistants in therapy for emotionally disturbed children.

What the network needs most is a wealthy patron, a Texas Monthly subscriber, perhaps. Just phone the hotline and say Cupid sent you.

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