Stephen McCulloch, Fired FAU Marine Mammal Expert: Dolphins Will Suffer
This week's grievance hearing on FAU's firing of dolphin rescue expert Stephen McCulloch -- after 16 years of high-profile service -- was over almost before it began, with FAU lawyer Lawrence Glick storming from the room and threatening to call the cops to clear the room of McCulloch's supporters.
McCulloch's lawyer, Barry Silver, and his supporters -- a miniconvention of veterans and volunteers from throughout Florida's marine mammal science community, many hoping to testify on McCulloch's behalf -- chose the better part of valor, however, and bowed to FAU's demands. Hearing officer Stacy Volnick, chief of staff to FAU President John Kelly, granted additional time for the Tuesday proceeding, ultimately, but kept it behind closed doors.
McCulloch was fired by FAU in February, in the aftermath of a dolphin rescue last December in which McCulloch moved the dying animal from the beach to a nearby swimming pool without prior approval from higher-ups in the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees marine mammal conservation.
An 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 feds 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." That despite a January news release from the school reiterating the NMFS description of the rescue.
FAU grievance regulations state that "the President or the President's designee shall issue a decision within 15 days of the conclusion of the hearing, which shall be final and binding." The school's Office of General Counsel has failed to respond to New Times' requests for comment on the hearing.
In the meantime, McCulloch, Silver, and McCulloch's supporters expect the worst and, in emails to New Times, have denounced FAU's handling of his grievance.
Silver expressed his gratitude to those of McCulloch's supporters who rallied that day and feared for the impact of his client's firing on the marine mammals McCulloch served:
What a privilege to get to know so many caring, dedicated, and professional people involved in the protection of marine mammals. It restores my faith in the goodness of our species to know that such remarkable people are out there every day seeking to bring comfort and love to fellow mammals that share a common ancestor with us and which made the fascinating journey over millions of years from the ocean to the land and back to the ocean again with all the complex adaptations necessary to become a fascinating, beautiful, intelligent, life form...
It is heartwarming to see that despite the cynicism of some people at FAU, the [marine mammal] stranding community, as is their custom, chose not to leave Steve stranded.
I do not accept NMFS or FAU sanctions are in order... I either had to treat the animal humanely and provide care and comfort... or let it die an agonal death in front of a large number of emotionally invested children, activists, beachgoers, condo owners, and bystanders. To allow any animal or person to suffer such a disturbing and violent end to its life when it could be easily prevented... goes against everything that's decent and right...
In the final analysis nobody was injured, nobody got sick, nobody got a disease, the dolphin was treated with great care and respect, valuable samples were collected and provided to NMFS... and Sea Oaks pool got cleaned up for $1,000.
Harbor Branch took a different view, put me on leave and recommended my termination based on a letter from the NMFS that was never investigated or discussed to consider the many extenuating circumstances and how we could build better protocols going forward by working together as a team...
I have never before been cited or reprimanded or written up. My safety record is simply one of the best in the business, and I have hundreds of witnesses that back me up.
As far as Harbor Branch at FAU, I have dedicated 16 years of my life, brought millions of dollars to support several programs, not only ours but others statewide. I have also delivered to them a world-renowned Marine Mammal program which is now melting down.
Harbor Branch also has worked to destroy my well-deserved reputation and my good name in the media... When two elephants fight, it's only the grass that suffers, and in this case it's the dolphins.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.