Scientists Puzzle Over Mysterious and Violent Dolphin Deaths Along the Gulf Coast

The animals appear to have suffered violent deaths by way of saws and screwdrivers, leading federal agents to pursue a criminal investigation into the potential foul play.

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Associated Press / Audubon Nature Institute

This photo taken in September 2012 shows a bottlenose dolphin found near Elmer's Island, Louisiana with a gunshot wound near its blowhole.

A string of mutilated dolphin carcasses that have washed up along the northern Gulf Coast has left animal conservationists disconcerted and baffled. The animals appear to have suffered violent deaths by way of saws and screwdrivers, leading federal agents to pursue a criminal investigation into the potential foul play. Most recently, a dolphin that washed ashore last week in Mississippi was missing its lower jaw.

Five dolphins have been found with gunshot wounds, according to the Associated Press. Other dolphin carcasses have been mutilated, with some missing fins, and, in one case, a dolphin found in Alabama turned up with a screwdriver through its head. At least six dolphins are believed to have died from foul play since the beginning of this year, federal authorities say.

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Since the dolphins started washing ashore, a group of animal experts has started seeking the perpetrators. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based nonprofit organization, is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the dolphin desperados. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is helping to investigate the possible crimes, is hoping people will write or call in any tips.

“These animals are very docile, very friendly and they’re very curious,” Moby Solangi, the executive director of Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss. told the Associated Press. “They come close to the boats, so if you’re out there, you’ll see them riding the bows. And their curiosity and friendship brings them so close that they become targets and that’s the unfortunate thing.” Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection act, it is illegal to harm a dolphin. If found in violation, criminals can be fined up to $10,000 and can face up to a year of jail time.

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While foul play seems evident in some cases, not all experts are convinced. Erin Fougeres, a scientist with NOAA, cautioned that some of the dolphins may have died naturally, and that the mutilation may have occurred after the fact. Fougeres explained that the dolphin missing its lower jaw may have had it removed as a souvenir after the animal passed away.

Regardless of the cause of death, public outrage has run rampant in the Gulf Coast region. The Animal Legal Defense Fund told the Sun Herald that the reward is helping, as well. They’ve received a few tips in recent days — much to the charity’s surprise. “I’ve never seen a response like this. Everybody’s horrified,” Solangi said.

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