The Flap Over Flipper

So you want to swim with the dolphins? Be prepared for two things: An argument from activists and a chance that the dolphins will make contact -- serious contact.

There's nothing like the threat of a tourism boycott to rattle a small tropical island dependent on a steady influx of dollar-toting visitors. Just ask Aruba's government officials, who for the past few weeks have been reviewing a permit application for an aquatic theme park that would include a controversial swim-with-the-dolphins facility. The project is a joint venture involving an Orlando businessman and Dolphins Plus, a swim-with facility in Key Largo.

But dolphin-rights advocates in Aruba and South Florida have dogged the project in recent weeks, dispatching a steady stream of negative press releases to the media and letters to the Aruba government charging that swim-with programs are inhumane. In July two South Florida dolphin activists -- Russ Rector, president of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, and former Flipper trainer Ric O'Barry of the Dolphin Project in Coconut Grove -- flew to Aruba at the invitation of an Aruban environmental group to participate in protests against the project.

Amid this barrage, the Tarpon Springs-based Coalition Against the United States Exporting Dolphins (CAUSED) promised to call for a tourism boycott of the island (located off the northern coast of Venezuela) should Aruba approve the necessary permits for the theme park. While not all of South Florida's dolphin activists support this threat -- Rector, for one, condemns it as an "ugly American" tactic -- the Aruba government hasn't taken it lightly. "The government is very much concerned because it got a letter from [CAUSED], which wants to boycott Aruba," says Tom Barmes, director of the Department of Agriculture, Husbandry, and Fisheries in Aruba. "And that group has two and a half million members!" (CAUSED claims to represent a coalition of 31 organizations, including the ASPCA and PETA.)

"Blackmail!" hollers William Marquez, an Orlando businessman and creator of the proposed theme park, to be called Dolphin Beach Aruba. Marquez says that when he began planning the project in 1990, three Aruba government officials gave him "their blessing in writing." If his permit applications are rejected, the developer says he will sue the Aruba government. "With the threat of a lawsuit on one side and the threat of a boycott on the other, I think the government is just afraid to make a decision," concludes Nancy Ezavin, editor of the daily newspaper Aruba Today.

The struggle is only one battle in the international war over the future of swim-with programs. In the United States, the programs have recently come under renewed scrutiny by federal officials. The National Marine Fisheries Service is conducting a lengthy investigation into the four swim-with facilities in the United States, three of which are located in the Florida Keys, the other in Hawaii. At these popular parks, visitors pay up to $80 for an instructional talk about dolphin behavior and a half-hour swim with several dolphins in a lagoon-type setting. "We're conducting a study that looks into the behavioral effects the programs may have on the dolphins," explains Scott Smullen, spokesman for the Fisheries Service, which licenses the swim-with operations. Smullen says he expects that by next summer officials will decide whether to continue permitting the programs.

But as far as dolphin activists are concerned, there's no need for further study. The effects, they insist, are clear -- and brutal. "These animals are starting to strike back," observes 45-year-old Russ Rector, who trained dolphins at Ocean World in Fort Lauderdale during the 1960s and 1970s. "Dolphins display captive-related stress in three ways: deviant sexual behavior, aggression, and depression. Over the last few years, these dolphins have been getting more and more aggressive."

Rector has collected letters from several people citing negative experiences at the facilities -- most pertaining to Dolphins Plus -- and videotapes depicting violent or dangerous behavior on the part of the dolphins. Among them:

A 1988 videotape shows a dolphin at Key Largo's Dolphins Plus rubbing his penis against a female swimmer. That particular video prompted the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, a national association based in Baltimore, to write a reproachful letter to Dolphins Plus. "The Alliance is concerned," wrote Alliance president Robert Jenkins, "because the video shows the dolphin interacting with the swimmer in a manner that we believe is wholly inappropriate and potentially very dangerous for both the swimmer and the dolphin."

Virginia resident Catherine Hillard describes in a "to whom it may concern" letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service how a dolphin attacked her on January 17, 1989, during a swim at Dolphins Plus. "He bumped me very hard at least twice in the ribs, and several times grabbed both my arms," Hillard wrote. "My arms had multiple bleeding cuts and scratches, and several scars remain visible today. My lower right rib cage was badly bruised and remained painful for at least six weeks."

Kathleen Forti, a child and family therapist from Virginia Beach, Virginia, also wrote to the Fisheries Service describing an unpleasant experience at Dolphins Plus. In May 1989, she wrote, a dolphin named Fonzi "latched" his penis around her leg and shook her.

David Valdez, a former employee at Dolphins Plus, wrote in an affidavit that he "witnessed several instances of potentially dangerous and actual aggressive acts by the dolphins in the program against unsuspecting tourists."

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