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By Carl Hiaasen

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Earlier this summer, in the Gulf waters near the Florida-Alabama border, somebody stabbed a screwdriver into the head of a bottlenose dolphin.

Sightings of the injured mammal occurred for a couple of days until it turned up dead in Perdido Bay. The crime, which remains unsolved, is notable for more than its extreme cruelty.

Years ago it would have been unusual for a human with a weapon in his hand to get near enough to wound a wild dolphin. That was before people began following and illegally feeding the animals, a practice recklessly adopted by a few tour-boat captains in the Panama City area.

The result was to train communities of dolphins to be not just lazy but dependent on handouts for survival. Instead of teaching their offspring how to hunt schools of baitfish, momma dolphins taught the little ones to wait for boatloads of tourists bearing buckets of chum.

Dolphins are smart and opportunistic. When the tour boats weren’t around they started bothering commercial fishermen, who with their paychecks on the line didn’t regard the voracious acrobats as fondly as visitors did.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government in recent years has prosecuted three fishermen for attacking dolphins. Guns are the favored method, and in one case a pipe-bomb was thrown.

The screwdriver killing is a first. Experts believe the mortally wounded dolphin came from a place near Orange Beach, Alabama, where feeding the protected marine mammals has become popular.

In most places you seldom hear of a dolphin being struck by a boat propeller. The adult specimens always teach the calves how to keep a safe distance from the engines — you can see these lessons in progress when a pod comes together in your wake.

Likewise, it’s uncommon in most waters for a dolphin to take a bait on a fishing line. They know better than to bite anything with a piece of barbed steel in it.

Except when they’ve lost their natural wariness of humans.

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