Santa Lucía Journal; Flipper's Trainer in Crusade Against Dolphin Exploitation
By DAVID GONZALEZ
Published: July 3, 2001
SANTA LUCÍA DE MILPAS ALTAS, Guatemala— When the sun sets over this town, Turbo and Ariel leap into the air in a ritual that dolphins have known for millions of years.
Their thick, slick bodies arc gracefully through the cool mountain air in a moment of fleeting freedom before they resume their current reality: swimming circles inside a training pool that is 40 feet across.
The two were abandoned in late May by the owner of Latin America's last traveling dolphin show after the Guatemalan authorities expressed suspicion that the pair had been captured illegally in coastal waters.
Their plight, animal and conservation advocates said, is a sad result of the brisk business in capturing dolphins who are trained to perform tricks or give swim-along rides in a rapidly increasing number of Caribbean and Central American resorts.
The rapid growth of those shows, animal advocates say, has been spurred by their success in American aquatic theme parks and by the fact that tourists are willing to pay $100 or more to cling to a dolphin and glide through a pool.
Though the shows and swim-alongs are promoted as having educational or even therapeutic benefits for humans, animal welfare advocates say they are little more than prisons for the dolphins, which have been displayed in such odd places as a Swiss disco and a Canadian mall.
''Dolphins in the mountains,'' said Ric O'Barry, as he watched Turbo and Ariel swim slowly in their pool here. ''That's bizarre.''
He should know. Mr. O'Barry made his name training the five dolphins that starred in the ''Flipper'' television series.
But he has been an ardent opponent of shows featuring captive dolphins ever since one of the ''Flipper'' dolphins died in his arms more than 30 years ago.
He has been asked by the Guatemalan government to return Turbo and Ariel to the wild -- the first time any Central America nation has rescued illegally captured dolphins. In doing so he will not only give the dolphins the freedom they briefly savor in their leaps but will also earn a bit of absolution for his past.
''I learned a lot about dolphins,'' Mr. O'Barry said of the years he spent working on the popular 1960's television show. ''I caught them, trained them, watched them give birth to babies, and I put them in the ground when they died. I did everything but turn them loose.''
These are busy times for Mr. O'Barry, who spent 30 years heading his own protest group, the Dolphin Project, before becoming a consultant to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a London-based coalition of 400 conservation and preservation groups.
While the society has returned some captive dolphins to the wild, it has focused its efforts on a campaign against the dolphin shows popping up at hotels, resorts and aquatic theme parks.
In recent months, parks have opened or been announced in the Caribbean islands of Antigua, Tortola and Anguilla and in the Dominican Republic. Many of them offer programs in which guests are allowed to swim with the dolphins.
At Manatí Park in the Dominican Republic, Mr. O'Barry said, up to 200 tourists a day pay $100 for a brief dip with the dolphins.
''It's just New Age snake oil,'' he said. ''The Dominican swim program is the worst. The dolphins are overworked. People go to these places and think it's a great experience. They pay 100 bucks. The dolphin pays with its life. They are just there to amuse an endless stream of people.''
Many of the animals for those programs, conservation advocates contend, are obtained on the black market from fishermen, who are paid a few hundred dollars for each dolphin, or legally from Mexico or Cuba, where a trained dolphin can be sold for as much as $130,000.
''We want Ariel and Turbo to be a banner for something larger than just their own individual salvation,'' said Gerardo Huertas, the Latin America director for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. ''They represent what is happening in Mexico, the U.S. and South America in a big business.''
None of this would have happened, Mr. O'Barry said, had it not been for the success of dolphin shows and swimming programs in the United States at places like Seaworld or the Miami Seaquarium. Mr. O'Barry used to work at the Seaquarium during his ''Flipper'' days, and he sometimes returns there to protest.
A spokeswoman for the Miami Seaquarium declined to comment on Mr. O'Barry. Brad Andrews, vice president of zoological operations at Seaworld, said Mr. O'Barry had no credibility as an expert.
''He doesn't know what he's talking about,'' Mr. Andrews said. ''We educate people. We spend millions of dollars a year in conservation. We have many guests who want to experience this in a controlled, safe environment.''
Mr. O'Barry says the notion that the programs have educational value is as illusory as the dolphin's famed smile.
''It's about jobs and money,'' he said. ''They say they want to educate people to protect the dolphins. Protect them from whom? It is inherently hypocritical to destroy their quality of life to enhance ours.''
He added that keeping dolphins captive anywhere -- be it a five-star park in the United States or a small pen in Latin America -- subjected the animals to sensory deprivation inside a concrete tank.
''They are self-aware animals that make decisions and choices,'' he said. ''They're entitled to freedom of choice. Thus they are entitled to freedom.'' And, he added, his group intends to let the captors know that ''the porch light is on and somebody is home.''
No one was home, though, until four weeks ago at the hillside complex here where Turbo and Ariel were trained by Rubén Roca. He owns Mundo Marino in Venezuela, which is a theme park as well as the home base for his traveling dolphin show.
He and several trainers rented the house along the road between Guatemala City and Antigua and dug a 40-foot hole, which they lined with plastic and filled with water. Originally, four dolphins were taken there to learn how to jump through hoops, stand on their tails or play with balls.
Earlier this year, when Mr. Roca wanted to send two of the dolphins back to Venezuela, Guatemalan wildlife authorities arrived to check the paperwork, as required by their laws and international treaties.
They found that the papers for the two other dolphins were in order, but discovered some irregularities with the papers for Turbo and Ariel.
While Mr. Roca, who could not be reached for comment, told the authorities that the two had been caught legally in Honduras, the Guatemalan authorities suspected that they had been caught illegally and began legal proceedings.
Mr. Roca fled Guatemala about a month ago, leaving Turbo and Ariel stranded in the 12-foot-deep pool, whose filter was barely working. A local environmental group contacted the world society, which ultimately was given permission by the Guatemalan government to rehabilitate the dolphins and set them free.
''The dolphins were underweight and dehydrated and suffering from ammonia toxicity after swimming in their own waste,'' said Juan Carlos Murillo, a veterinarian with the society. ''They were behaving erratically, and the water was dirty. We got here just in time, because they couldn't take it much longer.''
Mr. O'Barry now spends his days feeding the dolphins 30 pounds each of snapper and butterfish and observing their behavior. Assistants have prepared a nylon net and will soon use it to lift them onto stretchers and place them in padded boxes before flying them by helicopter to a large pen nestled in a bay on Guatemala's Caribbean coast.
There, Mr. O'Barry and his wife will begin to wean them off people and a diet of dead fish, hoping their natural hunting behavior will be rekindled.
His critics have said that not all captive dolphins can or should be released, since they lose the ability to forage for food and defend themselves after becoming accustomed to humans. In the late 1990's, Mr. O'Barry and an associate were fined $59,000 by the federal government for improperly releasing two dolphins that were later found in poor condition.
Mr. O'Barry disputes that claim, but said he paid the fine -- a sum raised through a benefit concert by his musician friend Jerry Jeff Walker -- rather then spend years and more money on legal fees.
Mr. O'Barry, who says he has returned 14 dolphins to the wild in the last 30 years, said he would not release the animals unless he was sure they were disease-free and able to be independent. As for not being an expert, the man who trained the dolphin known all over the world just laughed.
''They've called me a terrorist, said I don't have a biology degree or that I'm not a veterinarian,'' he said. ''I say, Ray Charles can't read music. That about sums up my attitude.''
So maybe the next time you're down South and your travel company's rep is briefing you on the fun attractions of your particular resort, when he tells you about how you can swim with the dolphins, maybe you can tell him to take a huge bite out of your ass.
Or maybe better yet, maybe before you book your flight, ask him if your particular resort has a dolphin encounter feature.
When he says: "Yes!!", tell him that you're sure as fuck NOT gonna book with them... Not until they clean up their act and cut themselves loose from that sordid business!