When I first met Russ Rector, in the spring of 2015, we talked about Lolita, Miami Seaquarium's resident orca. Rector alleged the size of her tank, the smallest of any orca in captivity in the world, was too small. He was as brash as his reputation implied. But as aggressive as his tone was, even from the get-go of our first talk — he could certainly string words together in a way that made it seem as if he was constantly infuriated — I realized he communicated this way only because he possessed what many others lack: passion. Russ was a diehard animal advocate.
I had no idea that my curious inquiry into the renowned animal rights activist would evolve into a correspondence that would last years. I also didn't know the world would lose him so soon. Russ died Sunday, January 7, at the age of 69.
It stings my heart that I won't hear from Russ ever again. Will there really be no more conversations about whether the birds in Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary are being properly cared for? Will there really be no more discussions about how certain animal rights activists profit more from their efforts than the animals themselves?
"The passing of my buddy, with whom I have fought many a battle, quiets but does not silence a very loud voice for voiceless animals," Rick Trout, a Key Largo-based friend of Russ', says. "The void of Russ Rector's drive, passion, compassion, hilarity of outlook, and delivery fit for standup comedy, which dogged bureaucracies and corporate abusers, especially of marine mammals, will not be replaced easily or anytime soon."
Long before the militia of anti-captivity activists formed after the release of CNN's 2013 documentary Blackfish, Russ petitioned the USDA in the late '80s to investigate the orca Lolita's tank at Miami Seaquarium to see if it met federal standards. Russ alleged that a former USDA official, Dr. Kristina Cox, who measured Lolita's tank in the '90s, told him herself that the enclosure met space requirements only if the concrete work island at the center were omitted.
Because Lolita can't swim through concrete, Cox made a formal report explaining her findings. Her concerns were, however, silenced — as Russ' records made available to New Times reveal. In 2016, the Marine Mammal Commission confirmed Cox's findings by ruling the tank substandard.
Russ was originally a dolphin trainer at Ocean World in Fort Lauderdale, and after realizing the harm, or what he would call outright abuse, to marine mammals in captivity, he called out the park through formal complaints to the USDA. Ocean World, after thorough investigations revealed violations were occurring, collapsed — in large part due to Russ. (George Boucher, the president of the marine park, moved to a leadership position at the Seaquarium.)
Russ believed the USDA agency that oversees the well-being of animals didn't want to give him another "win." But he continued fighting for Lolita. He talked about her all the time. He was an animal advocate who was wary of the captivity of all animals — and who was weary of "bureaucrat bullshit," having watched, over the years, multiple reporters cover the issue to no avail in retiring Lolita.
Could you imagine fighting for something for years even without any real signs of improvement? No wonder he seemed constantly frustrated. Who wouldn't be?
The last voicemail I received from Russ was just a few days ago. He called to wish me a happy new year and to let me know he made a new discovery regarding animal rights violations. That was the kind of relationship we had. I didn't know that my longtime source was ill. Frankly, I'm not even sure if Russ would have told me. He talked about animals and their medical histories but very seldom talked about his own.
Russ, who originally hailed from South Carolina, is survived locally by his wife Linda.
"Marine mammals have lost a dedicated advocate and a voice that was not merely passionate and sincere — but effective," fellow animal advocate Belinda Morris wrote on Facebook. "The marine mammal community has lost an ardent activist and one of its most astute — and often under-appreciated — analysts."
As a reporter, I suppose I should simply call him a source of information. But what do you call someone you trust, you argue with, you put up with because you've journeyed so far together in your quest to uncover the truth? The word is friend. Russ Rector — the feared activist even among activists — was my friend.
Goodbye, Russ. We won't stop protecting the voiceless.