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Notorious begging dolphin found dead

His freeloading ways delighted boaters for more than two decades — much to his own detriment.

Now Beggar the dolphin is dead.

His underweight, decomposing body showed up Friday near the Albee Road Bridge in south Sarasota County, in the brief stretch of Intracoastal Waterway he used for his personal smorgasbord.

Beggar would approach just about every passing boat, stick his head out of the water and solicit food. Thousands of people complied — feeding him shrimp, hot dogs, pretzels, even beer.

Signs on shore warn that feeding dolphins is illegal, but gawkers on tour boats still offered sandwiches. Anglers heading home at the end of the day tossed him rotting bait.

• • •

Beggar was not friendly. He bit dozens of people who tried to touch him. He severely injured one woman who tried to swim with him.

Examining his body Friday evening, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory could not pinpoint the exact cause of death. But Beggar's close association with humans apparently damaged his health, they say.

Broken ribs and old gash wounds on his flesh pointed to encounters with boat propellers. Fish hooks were found in his stomach along with hard, horny "squid beaks," which fishermen sometimes use as bait but resident inshore dolphins do not eat.

"All of these things indicate that he was spending more time attempting to get food from humans than foraging on his own," said Gretchen Lovewell, the manager of Mote's Stranding Investigations Program, who performed the necropsy.

Beggar also appeared malnourished, said Randy Wells, a Chicago Zoological Society scientist who directs a dolphin research program based at Mote.

"He weighed 135 kilograms and should have been about 224 kilograms, based on a male of his length," he said.

Why was he just 300 pounds at death, instead of the expected 490?

"Anything I could say at this point (about the weight loss) would be speculation," Wells said.

But fishing line attached to hooks could have contributed. Beggar also had stomach ulcers and internal injuries from two stingray barbs.

Wells estimates that Beggar was between 25 and 35 years old, based on his size and growth rate when researchers first began to study him. Some male dolphins have lived to age 50.

In the past, regulators at the National Marine Fisheries Service have said Beggar would have returned if they had tried to relocate him. This week they used his death to reiterate warnings.

"There is a common misconception that feeding, touching and swimming with dolphins is not harmful and they don't get hit by boats," said Stacey Horstman, bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator, in a statement. "Responsible viewing of dolphins is crucial to their survival."

• • •

Cool Breeze Watersports rents jet skis, pontoon boats and kayaks at the Albee Road Bridge. Beggar approached nearly every customer, owner Karie Daniels said.

"People came back year after year to see him," she said. "It was an interaction you just don't get every day, him sticking his nose over the boat, looking for a handout, basically greeting you."

The company warned every customer not to feed or touch Beggar because he would bite, Daniels said. "We would tell them, 'Don't do more than take a picture and be on your way or you will probably get your fingers tended to by paramedics.' "

But some customers paid no heed.

"People just can't resist feeding the dolphin or petting the dolphin," Daniels said. "You don't go hiking in the Rockies and see a grizzly bear and walk up and try to feed it. But dolphins are characterized so differently in movies, people think it's going to be just like a puppy. So they just go up and try to pet it."

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@tampabay.com.

>> fast facts

Beggar:

by the numbers

A scientist at the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program observed Beggar for 100 hours over a three-month span in 2010. She documented:

3,600 interactions between Beggar and humans, up to 70 an hour.

169 attempts to feed him 520 different food items.

121 attempts to touch him, resulting in nine bites.

Notorious begging dolphin found dead 09/24/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 24, 2012 9:59pm]
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