FAU Hearing on Firing of Dolphin Expert Stephen McCulloch May Be Heated

Categories: Fire Ant

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The grievance hearing tomorrow in the case of Stephen McCulloch, the "dolphin gurn" fired by FAU, has been preceded by wrangling over procedure. The school has agreed to allow McCulloch to bring witnesses and cross-examine the school's witnesses but has declared the hearing a closed-door affair.

See also:
- Dolphin Expert Stephen McCulloch Fired by FAU, Seeks Reinstatement

McCulloch's attorney, Barry Silver, feels the school's guidelines still fail to assure his client's rights, however. A ruling upholding McCulloch's firing may lead to legal action against the school.

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McCulloch -- for 15 years a key figure in marine mammal rescue and research at FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) in Fort Pierce -- was fired by the school February 14 in the aftermath of an unorthodox dolphin rescue last December.

According to a January 6 letter from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency that oversees marine mammal conservation, McCulloch on December 28, in response to a Vero Beach dolphin stranding, moved the dying animal from the beach to a nearby swimming pool without prior approval from higher-ups in the NMFS.

The NMFS letter described McCulloch's unauthorized transport of the dolphin and his failure to notify the pool's owners of health risks as "egregious violations." For that, the Fisheries Service suspended HBOI from marine mammal rescue for 30 days and placed the institution on probation for a year.

The NMFS did not, however, ask that McCulloch be fired. That was FAU's decision. FAU officials have refused to discuss the matter, citing "a long-standing policy of not commenting on personnel actions."

In a January 24 news release, however, the school repeated the "egregious violations" language, charged an unnamed "HBOI staff member" with "possibly exposing" the public to "dangerous pathogens," and said "our employee" put the Vero Beach swimming pool's owners through the trouble and expense of draining and decontaminating the pool. (According to the Vero News, HBOI picked up that tab; set it back a grand. And no one on the scene is known to have taken ill.)

The school recounted the NMFS findings in a January 24 "notice of proposed termination" and dismissed McCulloch's rebuttal. "You attempt to convince the reader that you acted in the animal's best interest and protected the bystanders," FAU Interim Provost Gary Perry wrote. "The evidence and your actions contradict these statements."

On February 14, following a predisciplinary hearing with FAU officials, the school fired McCulloch for "substandard, incompetent, unprofessional or incomplete performance"; "falsification of records"; and "violation of safety practices."

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Reaction to McCulloch's firing has been widespread and impassioned, both from leading figures in the world marine mammal science community and from witnesses to the December dolphin stranding.

Here's how John A. Knight, an internationally known zoo and wildlife consultant, put McCulloch's case in a January 28 letter to Interim Provost Perry:

I have spoken to Steve about what happened on the 28th December 2013 on Vero Beach, and his subsequent actions. I understand, as he does, that protocol was broken, and as such he has committed a misdemeanor. However, there were mitigating circumstances... It appears that Steve made the most of what circumstance allowed... In this incident no individual person or animal was injured as a consequence of Steve's actions; the stranding was successfully attended and humanely concluded. Whilst Mr. Steve McCulloch might expect an investigation and possibly a reprimand, it appears to me that the impending termination of his contract is a grossly disproportionate reaction to his misdemeanor. I also fail to see how it could be to the benefit of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, or its national and international reputation.

Two individuals who were present at the Vero Beach stranding have written to FAU in support of McCulloch. One, following a detailed description of the anxieties of the day, concluded:

Through this entire ordeal, I was so impressed with Mr. McCulloch's handling of all the factors in play: assuaging the concerns of animal welfare champions, educating children and keeping them out of harm's way, continually monitoring the dolphin's vital signs, communicating with his team... [He] obviously knows how to take care of dolphins, but his public relations and emergency management skills were some of the most masterful I've ever seen.


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