Flipper's Revenge

They're cute. They're cuddly. They're smart. And as the fiasco at Sugarloaf Key shows, they make humans do crazy things.

From the day O'Barry arrived at Sugarloaf, where Good put him up and paid him a small salary (around $300 per week), he was at odds with one of his former acolytes, Rick Trout. The volatile, ruddy, red-haired Trout, a dolphin trainer like O'Barry, had helped Good get the sanctuary operating and worked there as director of the animals' caretaking. Years earlier Trout had worked with Molly, Bogie, and Bacall at Ocean Reef. Coincidentally, he had also been a contract trainer for the navy in San Diego.

From the start Trout clashed with the brooding, sometimes distant O'Barry. Opposing views on treatment and training of dolphins exacerbated their personality differences. Before long Sugarloaf was a divided camp, with all involved forced to choose sides. "It was one of those things in your life you don't ever want to remember," recalls Sue Vola, a friend of Trout who once operated the Sugarloaf Lodge's restaurant and volunteered with dolphin care. "Everything kind of changed once Ric [O'Barry] got there."

Trout maintains that O'Barry was only putting on a show for the TV cameras, not applying any kind of methodology that would ensure results; further, Trout was convinced that O'Barry was abusing the dolphins with corporal punishment. He even accused O'Barry of injuring one of the animals by throwing a brick at her. Trout himself had been fired from the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key in the Seventies, allegedly for kicking a dolphin and depriving it of food, according to center spokeswoman Dana Carnegie. Each man contends the abuse allegations against him are hogwash.

There is no official instruction book for readapting captive dolphins to freedom, despite the fact that the National Marine Fisheries Service must approve a detailed plan as part its review for issuing a release permit. O'Barry's approach is more intuitive than scientific, and he argues that it has always worked for him. In addition to spending many hours discreetly observing the dolphins' behavior, O'Barry says his basic tool is to stop responding (usually with food) to a dolphin's tricks and other "learned" behaviors. "It's not rocket science," he likes to say. "Anyone who pays attention can do it."

That attitude would become a point of contention among other activists and trainers who, for the sake of winning approval from government scientists, wanted to be able to carefully document and interpret every change in the dolphins' behavior and physiology. They were going to have to prove that the animals could do more than simply catch live fish, but all of it was sketchily charted territory. Trout and O'Barry, however, were not exploring it together. O'Barry claims that Trout simply wanted to usurp his place as the leader of the free-dolphin movement. Trout contends that he couldn't stand by while O'Barry screwed up such an important project.

Regardless, by December 1994 Lloyd Good felt he had to do something to restore peace, so he fired Trout and Trout's girlfriend Lynne Stringer, also a trainer. "I had to decide between the two, and O'Barry had the experience," Good now says. "Trout was my friend."

But Good's peace plan backfired. Excluded from the project, Trout went on a fax and telephone rampage. He complained to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) about conditions at the sanctuary, including O'Barry's "outdated and abusive" training methods. He also contacted animal rights groups all over the world with complaints about O'Barry and Good.

The USDA, obligated to investigate complaints, sent inspectors to Sugarloaf more than 30 times over the next year and a half. "We also started seeing all these people with binoculars and video cameras sitting in boats out on the bay," recalls Kathleen Brooks, a paid handler. The observers were mostly local activists who, like Trout, were concerned about the dolphins' treatment.

Scrutiny was even more intense from the Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations and interested parties who were counting on these releases being carried out with impeccable adherence to every legal and scientific requirement. "We went into this believing what we were getting into was a precedent-setting permit process, " recalls Naomi Rosde. "We were going to leap through all the hoops, and Mr. O'Barry was 100 percent behind that. We all wanted to do this right -- so right that we could turn to the captive-dolphin industry and say, 'Poke holes in this if you can. We dare you.'"

Joe Roberts, working in Melbourne on the application for the federal release permit for Bogie and Bacall, says he pleaded with O'Barry to help put a training protocol in writing. "I even sent him a tape recorder and said, 'If you don't want to write, just speak into it and we'll work with that,' but he never did." In October 1994 Roberts submitted to the feds his first attempt at a detailed permit application. It wouldn't be until Valentine's Day 1995 that he would get a response, which he described as "a mindblower": fourteen pages of questions and requests for arcane scientific minutiae that even the best-informed on his team wondered how they could ever provide.

Not only was the permit process at a standstill, but Sugarloaf was having trouble keeping a veterinarian of record, a federal requirement. During the course of about two years, four veterinarians experienced in caring for marine mammals came and went. Other vets with different specialties sometimes filled in when a dolphin doctor couldn't be found, but that didn't solve the problem. According to several people who worked at Sugarloaf, and to some of the doctors themselves, many marine mammal vets refused on principle to have anything to do with O'Barry, Good, or Trout, all of whom were perceived as being difficult. But an underlying philosophical conflict was never far from the surface as well. Good and O'Barry, like many other anti-captivity advocates, don't trust marine mammal veterinarians who are employed by the very aquatic amusement parks and display facilities that activists consider barbaric.

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