Lather Not

The way Russ Rector tells it, he never would have considered peeking at the underside of the Miami Seaquarium's whale stadium. Buildings aren't his metier; as the strident director of the Ft. Lauderdale-based Dolphin Freedom Foundation, he has always been more concerned about captive cetaceans than about the structures that hold them.

But in late July, Rector says, he got a couple of anonymous calls from Seaquarium employees. Check out the whale stadium, they told him. Go take a look underneath it. We're afraid it might collapse.

Video camera in hand, Rector went out to Virginia Key for a look-see. He quietly made his way beneath the stadium, where he beheld a disquieting sight: The stadium's cement grandstand was being buttressed by a virtual Sherwood Forest of temporary construction columns of the type generally used for short-term support during building projects. Water was pouring through cracks in the cement barely three feet from a wall of boxes clearly marked "Danger, High Voltage." Electrical cords were wrapped around columns. Large pieces of rusting equipment lay on the ground.

The activist quickly filed complaints with Dade County's Building and Zoning Code Enforcement Division, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Dade County Fire Department, among others. While he was at it, he wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the federal agency that monitors marine exhibition animals, alleging that the stadium's tank is too small for the orca whales and dolphins that occupy it. "The Whale Stadium should be closed to the public immediately," he contended.

Although Arthur Hertz, president of Wometco Enterprises, the Seaquarium's corporate parent, did admit in a recent Miami Herald article that the Seaquarium is "tired and needs to be rebuilt," so far no official agency has rushed to heed Rector's admonishments. Regional OSHA administrator Jose Sanchez says his inspectors consulted with Seaquarium engineers and see no potential threat to employees. Metro-Dade and APHIS have conducted inspections but have not yet released any findings.

There is, however, one person in a position of power who shares Rector's view and has acted upon it: After viewing Rector's video last week, shampoo magnate John Paul DeJoria, CEO of Paul Mitchell Systems, Inc., asked his Miami distributorship to terminate its corporate support of the Seaquarium.

"We were pretty appalled," says Roz Rubenstein, Paul Mitchell vice president for public relations. "John Paul was taken aback and troubled. All you have to do is look: Underneath the holding tank it's decaying, it's rusty, it's cracked. It feels like the animal is being housed there just to make money, and that's it."

DeJoria and cofounder Mitchell (who died six years ago) built their business by marketing their products as "cruelty-free"; i.e., no Mitchell hair elixirs are tested on animals. Indeed, Paul Mitchell Systems has long been considered a friend of animal rights. And not surprisingly, DeJoria and his Miami distributor, Linda Martens of Elite Salon Systems, were troubled by the federal government's Marine Mammal Inventory report Rector also sent them, which shows that since 1973, a total of 53 dolphins and 48 sea lions held at the Seaquarium have died.

"I'm a native of Miami, and I had felt the Seaquarium was a caring organization," says Martens. "But after I spoke with Russ and he showed me the conditions of how they keep the things they're supposed to care for -- we just don't want to be associated with that."

In a tersely written fax, Martens formally asked the Seaquarium to quit using the Paul Mitchell Systems corporate logo, ending her communique with this sentiment: "I sincerely hope your operation will improve or close down."

Martens's passion notwithstanding, the nixed sponsorship boils down to no more free shampoo (in exchange for placement of the Paul Mitchell logo on the park's brochures, the company provided hair-care products for Seaquarium trainers). Still, Rector is jubilant. "When people saw the Paul Mitchell logo, they probably thought, 'Hey, if Paul Mitchell's name is on it, these people must be OK.' Now the Seaquarium can't look 'green' any more."

Seaquarium director George Boucher was out of town and unavailable for comment this past week. But according to spokesman Dan Leblanc, the Seaquarium isn't particularly stung by the Paul Mitchell pullout. "While we appreciated their support, it's not a terribly important thing to us financially," he says. "Our deepest disappointment was that Martens took this action without even discussing it with us.

"This is not a balanced issue," Leblanc adds. "Sure, you've got a couple of folks who don't agree [with cetacean exhibition parks]. But the lion's share of Florida has been supporting us for 40 years. The people who have a vendetta against this industry are definitely in the minority."

According to Bruce Rubin, the Seaquarium's outside public relations consultant, Martens has given the Seaquarium short shrift. "We are disappointed that Paul Mitchell didn't look at the whole picture," Rubin says. "We'd hope they would reconsider. Unfortunately, some people on the fringe choose to overlook the fact that the Seaquarium rescues pilot whales, turtles, birds and manatees, helps them recover, and sets them free."

Michael Phang, a University of Miami engineering professor who is retained as a consultant by the Seaquarium to ensure the park's structural soundness, calls the setup Rector videotaped part of an "ongoing maintenance program" he inspects every two weeks. "Russ Rector just likes to make trouble," adds Dan Leblanc. "This place has been inspected to death."

Rector's response: "If it's so sound, why does someone need to look at it every two weeks?"

Buoyed by his success with Paul Mitchell, Rector has sent packets to Kodak and Coca-Cola, the Seaquarium's other two corporate sponsors. While a complete sponsor abandonment wouldn't be a major crisis for the Seaquarium, it would certainly give Wometco execs a headache. The company has long sought to relocate and rebuild the aging facility on Key Biscayne. Although negotiations are ongoing, municipal officials have held the line for the past five years, balking at the increase in traffic that might be spurred by a new Seaquarium.

It would be an understatement to say Rector is relishing this latest battle, as it gives him an opportunity to smite his nemesis and former boss. Years before he became an activist, Rector worked for George Boucher as a trainer at Ft. Lauderdale's Ocean World. Boucher, who ran Ocean World until it went out of business last year, said the activities of dolphin advocates were "not even a factor" in the marine park's closing. But complaints raised by Rector and others had prompted a 1991 USDA investigation of Ocean World that documented multiple incidences of animal mistreatment and forced Ocean World to close temporarily and pay $20,000 in federal fines.

Owing to a reporting error, the article "Lather Not" (September 28), by staff writer Jason Vest, incorrectly stated that the Miami Seaquarium hopes to relocate and build on Key Biscayne. In fact, the facility's plans for renovation and expansion call for it to remain on Virginia Key.

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