An open letter to our concerned marine mammal rescue supporters

We’ve received many emails and Facebook posts about a dolphin stranding that took place on March 13th.  Several people had questions about what they had seen in a video posted by local media and were concerned that we had not immediately released this animal.

I’d like to try to answer some of those questions and concerns.

This particular young common dolphin stranded on one of our local Cape Cod beaches. 

As part of our standard rescue protocols, we moved the animal out of the rough surf and into our rescue trailer to stabilize and calm the animal and to complete a physical exam to determine if it was healthy enough to be released back into the ocean, or if it was too sick or injured. 

Due to the tidal conditions in Cape Cod Bay, where the animal stranded, we have not had a history of successful releases there, so we regularly relocate animals to beaches facing the open ocean where they have a much greater likelihood of survival. 

And so the use of the specialized trailer as a mobile triage unit…

While many dolphins strand in this area due to the area’s high tide fluctuations and complex sandbars and mudflats, some strand because they are simply too sick or injured.

Unfortunately, the health exam that was performed yesterday, which also included an extensive blood analysis and an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) (the wires you see attached to the animal in that video are recording the animals heart rate) showed that the animal was ill and failing quickly.

All indications pointed to a preexisting illness that was exacerbated by the stress of stranding. 

It is not humane to put a dying dolphin back into the water to suffer a slow and painful death.  This is why the decision needed to be made to humanely euthanize this particular animal. 

We use the same methods that your veterinarian uses to put a beloved family pet to sleep. 

And this is not a decision we take lightly, nor something we as a team ever want to do. 

But when it is the most humane option, we do what is needed.

In the video above, the author talks about IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue & Research team procedures.

To give you some perspective on how the Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team operates, when I began working with stranded marine mammals in this area in 1998, we were only able to save about 10-14% of the dolphins that stranded alive on our beaches. 

In 2012, we successfully released 74% of the dolphins that stranded alive here.

This improved success rate is due to the excellent care provided to these animals by our staff and trained volunteers.  It’s also a result of greatly improved medical and rescue protocols our team has developed through the recording and analyzing of animal-specific data from every event so that we can always be improving and thus save more cetaceans.

In addition to blood work, much like your doctor does at your annual physical, we monitor vital signs like heart rate and respiration, look for injuries, observe behavior, and take weights and measurements of the animal to assess the nutritional condition. 

Whenever possible, we also test the hearing of dolphins using Auditory Evoked Potential testing – the same non-invasive technology used to test human infants (also seen in the video). 

Given the importance of hearing in dolphin echolocation and communication and the increasing threats of ocean noise, it is important to better understand their normal hearing ranges and when they may have a deficit. 

We also use a portable ultrasound machine to examine the blubber thickness, a good measure of nutritional condition, and to determine if an animal is pregnant in which case the animal requires special handling and protocols.

Believe me when I say we share your concern for these animals…and at IFAW we strive to help not only the individuals, but also populations. 

I am happy to answer any questions you have about the work that we do in the comments below. 

Please feel free to ask, and as always, we can’t continue to make improvements to the work we’re doing without your continued support


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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy