Flipped Out Over Flipper

Dolphin activist RussRector will do just about anything to make swim-with-dolphins programs extinct

But then, flush with success, Rector overplayed his hand, announcing that he'd refuse to eat until Ocean World's owners agreed to sell him the facility's 13 orphaned dolphins. The hunger strike lasted just 35 days, after which "I finally realized that they wanted me to die," and he called it off. The Ocean World dolphins were eventually shipped to South America, and Rector has never forgotten or forgiven. In particular he blames the late governor Lawton Chiles for having refused to step in and mediate. "I hope it hurt when Lawton Chiles was laying on the ground dying," hesays.

Rector's intensity is better understood once you understand his history; the man who would free the dolphins from commercial exploitation used to train them himself for exactly that purpose, at Ocean World. Rector worked as an assistant trainer for the marine park for 11 years before leaving in the early '80s over a pay dispute.

It's a point his rivals make much of. "He's like a reformed sinner who suddenly sees God," says Rick Borguss, president of Dolphins Plus Inc., a Key Largo swim-with-dolphins program. (It was Borguss' father, Lloyd, who invented the concept.) Borguss and Rector are old enemies, and Borguss likes trying to pull his chain: "You think dolphins are dangerous -- have you ever seen that Monty Python movie about the Holy Grail?" Borguss wants to know. "Remember the killer rabbit? Don't you think the world needs to be warned before some deadly bunny gets an unsuspecting kid by the throat? Could happen, you never know. Let's call in the feds just to be on the safeside."

First Russ Rector trained dolphins at Ocean World; then he set them free
Melissa Jones
First Russ Rector trained dolphins at Ocean World; then he set them free

Swim-with-dolphins attractions -- like all marine parks -- come under the jurisdiction of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In September1998 APHIS published a set of proposed rules for the industry, including requirements for reporting injuries and limiting the length of time per day dolphins could work. But the agency suspended enforcement of the rules after businesses complained that the rules were unrealistic and unwieldy.

As an example of an unrealistic proposal, Borguss points to one proposed rule that would require that dolphins undergo a full medical examination, including endoscopy, every six months. "I don't think whoever is proposing these rules knows how stressful it is for a dolphin to be hauled out of his lagoon and have an endoscope stuffed down his throat. I have two dolphins right now that probably wouldn't stand forit."

Borguss also points to statistics that suggest it's safer to swim with a dolphin than to ride a horse. Nobody has ever been killed at a swim-with-dolphins resort, and the most serious injury on record occurred in 1992, when a Massachusetts attorney had his breastbone shattered by a charging bottle-nosed. By comparison South Florida alone has seen two horseback-riding fatalities in the lastyear.

Borguss' arguments get no sympathy from Rector: "If (Borguss') dolphins can't handle the stress of an endoscopy, then they shouldn't be having to deal with the stress of a pack of strangers invading their home every day. How stressful do you think that must be? How would you like to live with that kind ofstress?"

In fact, the more he talks about it, the more worked up he gets, until finally he's red-faced and shouting: "Here's something I just don't understand! Somebody who would never think about jumping into a cage with a lion will just hop in the water with a wild dolphin and not think a thing about it! I'm telling you, we're going headlong down the road to a death, and I only hope it's not achild!"

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com

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