Sarasota, Florida (News-Press) -- Southwest Florida's most famous bottlenose dolphin died last week, the victim of bad human behavior.
Beggar, an adult male dolphin that has been begging food from people near Nokomis for at least 22 years, was found dead Sept. 21 near the Albee Road Bridge in Sarasota.
Although he survived more than two decades approaching boats for handouts, Beggar was not a healthy animal, said Randy Wells, manager of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, a partnership between Mote Marine Laboratory and the Chicago Zoological Society.
"He was 89 kilos (195.8 pounds) below the weight of a male his size," Wells said. "He got away with what he was doing for 22 years before it caught up with him."
Wells estimated that Beggar was 25 to 35 years old; researchers have documented male dolphins living as long as 50 years in the wild, and a female in Sarasota Bay is 62 years old.
Feeding dolphins is bad for the animals and illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act; penalties can be fines up to $100,000 and one year in jail.
Wells and other scientists studied Beggar extensively over the years.
In the most recent study in 2011, researchers recorded 189 instances of illegal feeding in 100 hours of observation. Researchers also documented 121 attempts to touch Beggar, which resulted in nine bites on humans.
That and other studies showed that people fed Beggar pretzels, crackers, candy bars, meat and cheese sandwiches, potato chips, hot dogs, cookies and beer.
"The unfortunate thing is that the more a dolphin's behavior is changed, the more it's going to continue until people stop doing what they're doing," said Stacey Horstman, NOAA Fisheries bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator. "Beggar was the poster dolphin of the natural consequences of illegal feeding.
"He was a local icon. People loved him. But he represents the very real consequences of what can happen."
Although a necropsy (post-mortem examination) could find no definite cause of death, several findings showed that Beggar's ill health was due to human interaction:
- Multiple broken ribs and vertebrae, the probable results of collisions with boats.
- Healed boat wounds on the dorsal fin, a healed puncture wound on the right pectoral fin, a healing puncture wound between the blow hole and dorsal fin.
- Hooks and fishing line in the first stomach, two squid beaks (squid are not natural food for Sarasota Bay dolphins) and several ulcers in the third stomach.
- Dehydration, possibly from not eating a normal dolphin diet.
Incidents of human-dolphin interaction are on the rise, said Assistant Special Agent Gregg Houghaboom, of NOAA Fisheries' Office of Law Enforcement.
"An old supervisor told me, you kill them with kindness," he said. "People want to be near these animals. They're beautiful animals, intelligent, and people just want to have contact."
Not everybody feels so warm and fuzzy toward dolphins: Among the increase in human-dolphin interaction are cases of people shooting and throwing pipe bombs at dolphins and a case this summer in Perdido Bay, in which a dolphin died after someone stabbed it in the head with a screwdriver.
As for Beggar's death at a relatively young age, Wells blames people, not the dolphin.
"If people had left him alone, it might have been a very different outcome," he said.
Previous stories on Beggar: