Florida Keys

Molly, the ‘Grand Dame’ of captive dolphins, continues to beat odds in the Keys

Still Friends: Stephen McCulloch visited the Dolphin Research Center in October to see his former dolphin trainee Molly while she was ill.
Still Friends: Stephen McCulloch visited the Dolphin Research Center in October to see his former dolphin trainee Molly while she was ill. Stephen McCulloch

Molly, the Dolphin Research Center’s “Grand Dame,” was a pet for a wealthy bachelor, starred in movies and on TV, traveled the country to perform at fairs and marine parks and lived life on the lam after a brazen escape.

She also was trained to search for buried sunken treasure for Mel Fisher and to carry camera equipment to look for the Loch Ness Monster.

So when Molly stopped eating last month, it caused concern the end could be near for one of the country’s most-storied dolphins.

That fear was short-lived. Despite Molly’s advanced age for a bottled-nosed dolphin, at an estimated 48 to 53 years, she was not ready to go.

“Molly is a survivor, and she continues to beat the odds,” said Rick Trout, who spent a decade caring for Molly and training her to do tricks for the wealthy before fighting to have her retired to a dolphin sanctuary.

Molly began eating on her own after several days of tube feedings and other veterinary care and is “doing well,” said Mary Stella, spokeswoman for the Dolphin Research Center in the Middle Keys.

It wasn’t the first brush with death for Molly, whose life has been surrounded by controversy since 1968. That’s when a dolphin hunter captured her in waters off the Gulf Coast of Florida.

“If only she could talk,” said Stephen McCulloch, another of Molly’s former trainers and her one-time part owner.

She likely got some of her independence from being born in the wild, sometime in the 1960s. It was a time when Flipper was popular; dolphins were big draws for country fairs; public attitudes about the capture and treatment of animals were much different; and there was no Marine Mammal Protection Act. It also was trendy to have dolphins as pets.

Capt. Eugene Hamilton, a prolific dolphin hunter of the time, originally captured Molly 46 years ago for a playboy bachelor in Punta Gorda to keep in his saltwater pool to impress his girlfriend, according to newspaper accounts and McCulloch.

Within a year or so, Molly was near death. She was severely emaciated and dehydrated, with infections and ulcers. Former Navy SEAL Frank O’Connor, who worked on the Navy’s marine mammal program, was asked to help. He relocated Molly to Key Largo, at Porpoise Pens (now called Dolphins Plus), owned by another dolphin hunter, Jerry Mitchell.

O’Connor nursed Molly back to health and then trained her to do tricks she would perform at country fairs and marine parks.

In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was put in place. Because Molly was a “Pre-Act” animal, most of the law’s protections did not apply to her. For the next decade, Molly’s multiple owners had her transported by planes and vans to performances around the country and in Puerto Rico.

At the Brunswick Fair in Georgia, Molly performed with Susie, the last surviving Flipper dolphin. During the return flight home, Molly badly injured her side while being loaded onto the plane without a stretcher. She still has the scars to prove it.

That led to Molly being sold to trainer Rusty Nielsen, who ran his own company of performing dolphins. Nielsen paired Molly with a young dolphin named Ginger and took them both to Puerto Rico.

“There was a catastrophic failure with the pump of the pool, and Molly is hurt during the emergency evacuation,” McCulloch said. Molly recovered once more and was relocated to the family-owned Theatre of the Sea in Islamorada. During a couple of summers, she and Ginger performed at Sterling Forest Park in New York. That pairing ended when Ginger died.

McCulloch became a part-owner of Molly and teamed her with Salty the Sea Lion for shows at Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In order to jump through hoops, Molly, who is 9 feet long, was trained to use every square inch of the 12-foot-deep pool.

In 1978, Molly got new dolphin partners, Lady and Sprite, and the trio performed in Massachusetts and Iowa.

Back at Theatre of the Sea, McCulloch trained Molly and Sprite to wear high-speed cameras and ultra-fast strobe lights to look for the Loch Ness Monster.

“It was going to be a money maker for the team, being financed by a guy out of Massachusetts and going big time with the National Enquirer involved,” Trout said.

But the search never took place because Sprite died at the aquarium in Hull, Massachusetts, where they prepared to make the trip to the cold waters in Scotland.

Molly was taken back to Theatre of the Sea, where McCulloch trained her to search for gold and silver to assist Fisher with his hunt for the Spanish shipwreck the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. But a tragedy in the Fisher family put a stop to that quest, McCulloch said.

Instead, Molly was taken to Virginia Key to make a movie called Key Tortuga, about a dolphin that looked for sunken treasure. She also would perform in commercials for Conoco oil and Sapporo beer.

At this point, Nielsen was deep in debt and ready to sell Molly and Lady. The buyer was the Ocean Reef Club, where they would entertain the wealthy residents from a lagoon the size of a football field near a restaurant and bar — and also receive quality care.

In 1988, the club added two more dolphins, Bogie and Bacall, captured from the Indian River. Four years later came the fateful day when a lemon shark got through a hole in the net that blocked off the lagoon and terrified the dolphins, leading to the great escape by all but Bogie.

While they were on the lam for nearly three weeks, activists got involved demanding the dolphins remain free. But the dolphins, used to being fed regularly, were soon spotted looking for handouts at a bait shop at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. “It was their show times at Ocean Reef,” Trout said.

They ended up in a lagoon off the 18th hole of the Key Biscayne golf course.

Three weeks later, the dolphins all survived a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew. But they became ensnared in Ocean Reef’s legal battle with the federal government. Captive dolphins were not allowed at places that were not open to the public, and Ocean Reef residents had no desire to lose their privacy.

The dolphins ended up being sent in 1994 to the newly created Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary, a converted family motel in the Lower Keys where a dolphin named Sugar lived as a pet for 20 years.

It was the first facility dedicated to preparing captive dolphins who were young and healthy enough for release back into the wild. Bogie and Bacall were eligible. It also was created to provide a retirement home for those dolphins who were deemed not releasable. Molly fit that bill, with 25 years of her life spent in captivity at the time. Lady never made it to the sanctuary, dying of a chronic liver problem before the move.

The sanctuary turned into a fiasco, as activists fought each other over whether or not to play by the rules of the federal government. It was closed down when two Navy dolphins were released without proper permits.

Activist Russ Rector of Fort Lauderdale said that’s when Molly’s retirement ended. In 1996, she was transported 30 miles north on U.S.1 to the Dolphin Research Center. “She went back to prison to do stupid pet tricks,” he said.

Not so, said Stella of the Dolphin Research Center. “This is her forever home and she’s very happy.”

To this day, Molly remains symbolic of the debate over whether dolphins belong in captivity at all. Rector has declared that the medical care Molly received at the Dolphin Research Center bordered on being “almost abusive for a geriatric lady.”

“Watch the video and you can see it does not meet accepted industry standards,” he said, providing footage taken by his “field operatives” in early October that showed Molly getting tube feedings at the research center.

“I was pretty much horrified when I saw it,” said Trout, who used to work at the center when it was called Flipper’s Sea School.

On Oct. 22, Rector filed a formal complaint about her treatment with the Animal Care section of the U.S. Department of Agricultures Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees the Animal Welfare Act.

Stella said the center, a nonprofit facility that hugs the Gulf and houses nearly 30 dolphins and sea lions, had no comment.

McCulloch said he visited Molly during her illness and that he witnessed her receiving “exceptional care,” and added that was also the case a few years ago when Molly made a remarkable recovery from renal failure.

Molly, who’s known for hoarding colorful scarves, has not been involved in any formal research at the center, but she has been one of the center’s biggest “educators” to other dolphins, the trainers and the public that comes to the center, Stella said.

“I think in the early days there was a lot of exploitation by nefarious types,” said McCulloch, who has also studied dolphins in the wild. “The shows now are more educational than entertaining and help people focus on our shared environment.”

Molly has outlived almost all other dolphins captured in the wild and placed in captivity before the 1972 Marine Mammal Welfare Act. In May, a dolphin named Nellie who was born in captivity died at Marineland in St. Augustine at age 61. She is believed to have been the oldest documented dolphin to live in captivity.

As Molly recently swam around her small lagoon, Stella said: “Nobody knows how much longer she has, but she might just outlive us all.”