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Brutal dolphin deaths perplex researchers

– Over the past several months, dolphins have washed ashore along the northern Gulf Coast with bullet wounds, missing jaws and hacked-off fins, and federal officials said they are looking into the mysterious deaths.

The most recent case was of a dolphin found dead off the coast of Mississippi, its lower jaw missing.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday they’re asking beachgoers, anglers and wildlife agents to be on the lookout for injured or dead dolphins – and any unusual interaction between the mammals and people.

“It’s very sad to think that anyone could do that to any animal,” said Erin Fougeres, a marine mammal scientist for NOAA’s southeast office in St. Petersburg, Fla. “There have been some obviously intentional cases.”

Besides the shootings, a dolphin in Alabama was found with a screwdriver stuck in its head over the summer. Another in Alabama had its tail cut off, and that animal survived. Still others were missing fins or had cuts to their bodies.

Dolphins are among the species protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to $10,000 per violation and sent to prison for a year.

Fougeres says some of the dolphin mutilations might have taken place after the animal died from natural causes and washed ashore. She said that in the case of the dolphin with the lower jaw missing, someone could have cut off the jaw for a souvenir after the animal died.

She also said the increase in cases might be due to NOAA’s dolphin stranding network becoming better trained to notice cruelty cases or unusual deaths.

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