A dolphin found dead off Florida's Gulf Coast was stabbed with a "spear-like object," said federal officials who appealed for the public's help to bring the mammal's killer to justice.
The bottlenose dolphin was recovered on March 24 on Fort Myers Beach with an obvious wound near the right eye, according to a statement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"A necropsy, non-human autopsy, revealed the dolphin was impaled in the head with a spear-like object while alive," according to the statement. "Further examination indicated the wound, above the right eye, was inflicted before the animal died. The dolphin was an adult lactating female. The animal appeared to have died from the trauma, which occurred at or near the time of death."
The nursing dolphin was likely being fed illegally by a human when it was fatally wounded, officials said.
"Based on the shape, size and characteristics of the wound, it is suspected that the dolphin was impaled while in a begging position," the NOAA said. "Begging is not a natural behavior for dolphins and is frequently associated with illegal feeding."
This dolphin, with its head above water and mouth open at the time it was stabbed, had likely become accustomed to illegal feedings from humans, an act that touches off multigenerational harm, officials said.
"Those dolphins have learned to associate humans with food," NOAA Branch Chief Laura Engelby told NBC affiliate WBBH. "Once they learn that, they also teach it to other dolphins and they teach it to their babies."
Human attacks on dolphins near the Gulf of Mexico are not new, with this slaying marking the 27th time since 2002 a dolphin has been found wounded by guns, arrows or the other sharp objects, according to the NOAA.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act carries fines up to $100,000 for harassing, harming, killing or feeding wild dolphins.
NOAA law enforcement agents are asking for anyone with details of this incident to call 1-800-853-1964. Tips may be left anonymously.