The 30-year-old Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key is inviting people to bring holiday props such as Santa hats and reindeer antlers and get their pictures taken with a dolphin.
One reader worried that the facility was inviting people to put reindeer antlers on the dolphins -- and that this was just the sort of marine-mammal slavery that's prompting a backlash against SeaWorld in the wake of the Blackfish documentary. So we called up Mary Stella, director of media and marketing for DRC, who explained:
First off, she noted that the Dolphin Research Center bills itself not as a tourist attraction but rather as "a non-profit marine mammal research and educational facility." It doesn't get any grants, though -- it's funded by tickets sold to people who walk through the door, and donations from private members.
She said that the center's educational programs include "dolphin swim" and "trainer for a day" programs. The holiday pictures "are part of our 'Meet the Dolphin' program -- people can give backrubs to the dolphins and do 'Flipper shakes.'"
She said that the holiday promotion is calling for people to wear the hats and antlers as they pet the dolphins, and that she hasn't received any complaints about the holiday pictures, although "there will always be people opposed to the practice of marine mammals in human care."
She hinted that it would not be a bad thing if a dolphin did put on a Santa hat: "Dolphins play with toys in and out of their environment. We would never do anything harmful to the dolphins. We do many things that are enrich or fun for dolphins, like offering them toys. Everything is done by their choice. We can't make them do anything -- we can only ask them."
She continued, "Even if a dolphin did pick a hat -- there's a dolphin here that loves scarves." To drape a scarf on her fin and swim with it is something that "Molly finds very enriching. It's no risk to her."
Stella emphasized, "We would never do anything that would put the dolphins at risk."
According to the DRC's website, the Meet the Dolphin program costs $25 per person in addition to general admission prices. Photos are supplied on a flash drive for $20 for one person, and $35 for multiple people in the same shot.