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Flipped Out Over Flipper

Here's some advice: Never tell Russ Rector, director of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation, that you can't see how swimming with dolphins could be as dangerous as, say, swimming with sharks.

"Don't get me started on the shark thing, goddammit!" an already started Rector thunders in response. "Don't even go there! Everybody's always saying [wimpy falsetto], 'Oh, it's not like swimming with sharks.' Well, when have you ever heard of anybody getting hurt swimming with a shark? I mean somebody who's out there diving and can see the shark in the water! Never! But how many people have ever gotten their fucking bones crushed by a dolphin? More than you can count, buddy! These are wild animals we're talking about!"

As you might suspect, Rector is no fan of Flipper. Or rather, it's better to say he's no fan of the Flipper image, that television-born fairy tale that portrays a half-ton oceangoing mammal with sharp teeth and a ramrod for a nose as no more than a smiling, squeaking buddy to all humankind. On this point, friends of Rector's allege the 51-year-old activist can get downright "passionate."

It's a passion that tends to lead Rector down strange paths -- like the path that ends in the ludicrous suggestion that dolphins are inherently more dangerous to humans than sharks are. That's partly why Rector's numerous enemies call him "the maniac." But at the heart of Rector's hyperbole lies a pearl of truth: Experienced divers do say that sharks aren't overly dangerous to divers (though divers do sometimes get bitten), and dolphins have been known to crush bones (though no national survey of dolphin-related injuries exists). Rector's own self-assessment is more results-oriented: "I get things done, don't I?"

In a word, yes. With his over-the-top personality, his overdrive energy, and his expletive-laden rhetoric, Rector has turned his small rented duplex in south Fort Lauderdale into a national center of opposition to the dolphin-commercialization industry. His accomplishments range from shutting down marine parks to planting damaging stories about dolphin shows in the Washington Post. (A 1993 story detailed a woman's complaint that a male dolphin had masturbated on her.)

Rector's current archenemy is the booming swim-with-dolphins industry, in which guests pay big bucks -- anywhere from $100 to twice that for a 30-minute session -- for the privilege of getting in the water with a friendly dolphin or two. Dreamed up 15 years ago by a Key Largo entrepreneur named Lloyd Borguss, the industry today is booming, with the number of swim-with-dolphins resorts in the U.S. rising from a total of 3 a decade ago to at least 18 today.

In recent months Rector has furthered his cause with the help of a Boca Raton woman named Bonita Hureau. Rector and Hureau met at a Super Bowl party in January when Rector overheard Hureau describing how she had narrowly missed being killed by a dolphin at a Nassau swim-with-dolphins program called the Blue Lagoon. Hureau, it turned out, had been riding a dolphin with her legs locked, as instructed, around the animal's torso, when the dolphin suddenly veered toward a piling at the edge of the performance enclosure. She leapt clear at the last second, after which she turned back to the dolphin's trainer and shouted, "That was close!"

Using Hureau's experience -- captured in a promotional videotape the outfit provided to her as a keepsake -- as exhibit A, Rector has managed to generate a slew of local and national stories publicizing his call for stricter regulation. He's also managed to make a nuisance of himself with federal bureaucrats and badgered the staff of Florida Sen. Skip Campbell (D-Coral Springs) about dolphin safety. Not bad for a one-man outfit whose last bank statement showed an overdraft of 11 cents. "He's definitely one of the most aggressive people I've ever had call this office," says Mike Dolce, a staffer for Campbell.

Not to mention one of the more uncouth. "I've been told I'm kind of different," Rector says. "But I really don't see it. I guess maybe others do." In a home office filled with colorful Caribbean tapestries and two yapping dogs, Rector sits down in front of his computer to demonstrate his prowess at public relations. Logging on, he clicks through a list of photographic scans, looking for the perfect gesture of goodwill for a favored journalistic contact. He settles on a scan titled "boobcrui.jpg" -- a group portrait of 21 topless women photographed on a yacht -- attaches it to an e-mail, types in the header "PICK YOUR POISON," signs it with his usual "R/R," and clicks SEND, chuckling.

"Yeah, he's definitely one of a kind," says Associated Press reporter John Pacenti, who wrote a story in May in which Rector was quoted calling for better enforcement of federal marine-mammal regulations. "He's foul-mouthed, he gets mad, he curses you out. Pacenti adds, "He's not one of those mealy-mouthed activist types, that's for sure."

And though Rector may come across like a clown at times, he has a record of accomplishment. In 1994 he organized an escalating series of street protests against the Fort Lauderdale marine park Ocean World that eventually turned into, according to Rector, "a media frenzy like I've never seen before or since" and helped force the park's closure.

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," he says.

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 safe side."

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 September 1998 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 for it."

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 last year.

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 of stress?"

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 a child!"

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address:
[email protected]

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Paul Belden

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