BOOKS: Ric O’Barry

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2000:

To Free A Dolphin
2000. 269 pages, hardcover. $23.95.
Behind The Dolphin Smile
1988, 2000. 300 pages, paperback. $15.95.
Both by Ric O’Barry
with Keith Coulbourn
Renaissance Books (5858 Wilshire Blvd.,
Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90036.)


As this is written, dolphin freedom advocate Ric
O’Barry is working by telephone and Internet––with no budget
and no media notice––to prevent the start of swim-with-dolphin
programs at Anguilla and Tortolla, in the British Virgin
Islands. O’Barry and the people who tipped him off about the
swim-with programs believe that the dolphins to be used were
previously kept at Diver Land in Margarita, Venezuela, where
a dolphin named Cheryl who was of special importance to
O’Barry died on October 31, 1997.

Originally captured and trained by the Russian Navy,
Cheryl was sold circa 1991 to Waterland Mundo Marino, a
traveling show based in Cali, Colombia. Argentinian animal
advocate Martha Gutierrez showed Cheryl to O’Barry in 1995.
Finding Cheryl in declining condition, O’Barry promised he
would save her. Gutierrez and O’Barry won an order from a
Buenos Aires court that Cheryl should be surrendered to their
custody for rehabilitation and release, but Waterland Mundo
Marino instead spirited her out of Argentina. O’Barry and
allies tracked Cheryl as best they could for the next two years,
but caught up with her at Diver Land just a few days too late.
Also at this writing, O’Barry has joined Free Willy!
producers Richard and Lauren Donner in helping Hawaiian
activists including Steve Sipman to fight plans by the Harry and
Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to build a $20 million theme
park around a new site for the Dolphin Institute at Maui Nui.
The Dolphin Institute, headed by University of
Hawaii researcher Louis Herman, emerged in 1993 out of studies
of captive dolphins begun in 1975 at the Kewalo Basin
Marine Mammal Laboratory. Then-assistants Sipman and Ken
Lavasseur in 1976 became concerned that two Atlantic bottlenosed
dolphins kept there were unduly suffering, and
released them. Sipman and Lavasseur then called the police,
identified themselves as the “Animal Liberation Front,” and
awaited their arrest, in the first U.S. “ALF” action on record
––and still the only one by people who made no effort to hide.
The action itself was not quite a first. O’Barry had
already tried to free a captive dolphin from the Lerner Marine
Laboratory in Bimini, the Bahamas, on Earth Day 1970. But
the dolphin refused to leave through the hole O’Barry cut in the
fence separating the lab tank from the sea. O’Barry walked to
the police station, turned himself in, spent a week in jail, and
eventually paid a fine of $5.00.
Others protested dolphin captures even before that.
O’Barry in his newly reissued first book, Behind The Dolphin
Smile, recalls how as a member of the Miami Seaquarium capture
team he evaded protesters in 1962 to net the albino dolphin
Carolina Snowball. She survived three years in captivity.
Under Miami Seaquarium trainer Ricou Browning,
O’Barry meanwhile became chief handler of the five dolphins
who performed in the film and TV series F l i p p e r. When the
TV series ended, O’Barry was retained to look after the dolphins
for one more year. Then he was cut loose.
Deeply disturbed, but uncertain why, O’Barry
became a semi-recluse for a while; became a vegetarian; traveled
to India to seek his soul; returned to the U.S. to participate
in marine mammal intelligence research; and was called one
day to try to save the life of one of the Flipper dolphins, Kathy,
who died in his arms from conditions O’Barry diagnosed as
consequences of stress and neglect.
From that moment O’Barry has dedicated his life to
liberating dolphins. Opening with the Bimini fiasco, B e h i n d
The Dolphin Smile entertainingly and informatively recounts
how O’Barry came to be the dolphins’ Don Quixote.
Until the unexpectedly successful first edition of
Behind The Dolphin Smile made O’Barry famous in 1988, he
worked mostly alone, in obscurity and near poverty. Yet
O’Barry did manage to return several dolphins to the sea.
Success brought emulation––and eclipse, especially
after 1993, when the film Free Willy! and two sequels made
cetacean freedom temporarily the most trendy and lucrative
branch of animal protection. Latecomers who rarely had even a
fraction of O’Barry’s experience and commitment soon surpassed
O’Barry in winning TV exposure, raising funds, and
forming strategic alliances with major animal advocacy groups.
O’Barry, to many, seemed to be no more than a possibly
envious voice from the shadows when he warned that the
orca Keiko, who played Willy, was a poor candidate for
release. O’Barry told ANIMAL PEOPLE that Keiko was far
too habituated to people and essentially content in captivity to
succeed in the wild––but O’Barry also named many other captive
whales and dolphins whom he believed should be set free.
They included two of the last dolphins captured from the wild
in U.S. waters, who were kept at a Florida facility called the
Ocean Reef Club, and a number of Navy-trained dolphins who
were soon to be sold as surplus. O’Barry believed the Navy
dolphins might be especially promising release candidates
because they had never been totally removed from the ocean.
Despite O’Barry’s caution, David Phillips of Earth
Island Institute and Free Willy! producers Richard and Lauren
Donner created the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, now called
Ocean Futures, and raised $14 million to prepare Keiko for
possible release.
Four years after taking custody of Keiko, and one
year after flying him to a sea pen in his home waters along the
coast of Iceland, Ocean Futures––with most of the money
gone––acknowledged in October 2000 through spokesperson
Hallur Hallsson that “It is likely that Keiko will remain in captivity
until the end of his life.”
Taught to catch live fish and given repeated chances
to go free, Keiko simply didn’t.
Went on about his work
O’Barry meanwhile went on about finding dolphins
he could free successfully, and releasing those whose custody
he won through whatever tactics each situation seemed to call
for. His repetoire included a prolonged hunger strike in Israel
and many arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience.
O’Barry’s own chance for Free Willy!-level recognition
seemed to come in 1994, when almost simultaneously the
U.S. Navy agreed to make up to six “surplus” dolphins available
for release, and Ocean Reef Club handed their dolphins to
activist Joe Roberts––whose involvement began when he heard
O’Barry speak to a diving club.
To Free A Dolphin centers on the formation and dissolution
of the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary. The site was a
Florida Keys resort owned by attorney Lloyd Good, with a resident
performing dolphin trained by Good’s son Lloyd Good
III, and a history of conflicts with environmental regulation.
O’Barry and Roberts hoped to use the site to rehabilitate and
release the ex-Navy and Ocean Reef Club dolphins.
From the beginning there were conflicts. O’Barry
believes that Lloyd Good III all along really wanted to breed
and keep dolphins, not release them. He had a female, and
O’Barry and Roberts brought more females plus males.
Roberts also made a tactical mistake, O’Barry
argues, in bringing into the project former Ocean Reef Club
trainers Ric Trout, Lynne Stringer, and Mary Lycan. O’Barry
believes that all three had a fundamental conflict of interest, in
that as trainers they need to have dolphins to make a living––
and even if their motives were uncompromised, O’Barry
explains, their whole approach is based on interaction.
O’Barry, alone among the leading figures in cetacean
liberation, uses the standard techniques of wildlife rehab for
release. He minimizes interaction, instead allowing animals to
discover for themselves how to do what they need to do to survive.
Help is limited to making sure the animals get enough to
eat, are treated for illness or injury, and are constantly challenged
with opportunities to learn key skills––preferably without
being aware of either human involvement or observation.
O’Barry believes all of the dolphins who were meant
for release could have been freed within 60 to 90 days of their
arrival at Sugarloaf, if he had been able to do things his way.
His record elsewhere suggests he was right. But exascerbating
the internal problems at Sugarloaf were a parade of visiting
donors and celebrities who couldn’t resist making pets of the
dolphins who were supposed to be released.
Add to that what O’Barry and ANIMAL PEOPLE
believe was deliberate disruption by undercover agents provo –
cateur. ANIMAL PEOPLE eventually identified four individuals
in proximity to Sugarloaf with histories of alleged espionage
against activism. Too late to help either O’Barry or the
dolphins, ANIMAL PEOPLE uncovered a trail of hints that
self-appointed Sugarloaf “peacemaker” Rick Spill was actually
attorney Bill Wewer. Wewer had direct links to Norwegian
whalers and Canadian sealers, but dropped out of sight in
1991; Spill, of hazy background but strong resemblance to
Wewer, emerged as a marine mammal activist in mid-1993.
Keeping U.S. activists focused on release projects and
infighting helped Norway to resume commercial whaling
(1993) and Canada to resume offshore sealing (1995).
Whalers and sealers also had, and still have, a more
subtle reason to covertly involve themselves in opposition to
marine mammal captivity. As harmful as captivity tends to be
to individual animals taken from the wild, the growth of the
anti-whaling and anti-sealing movements can be traced directly
back to the popularity of Flipper and the attraction of millions
of people to view marine mammals at oceanariums. Captive
orca facilities could even be credited with building the empathy
with orcas that brought the success of Free Willy! and sequels,
and the effort to make the happy ending come true.
The same phenomenon is evident in Japan, where an
anti-whaling and anti-dolphin slaughter movement has grown in
recent years following the opening of popular marine mammal
exhibition sites. Some of the sites are reportedly sponsored by
fishing companies which sell whale and dolphin meat––but the
messages they try to push apparently have less influence than
the experience of direct contact with the animals.
Thus O’Barry, ironically, may have done more for
dolphins in his Flipper capacity than in his subsequent role as
dolphin advocate. One could also make a case that the gradual
disappearance of substandard dolphin facilities around the U.S.
and Europe results from the requirements of keeping dolphins
alive and economic competition from the five-site Sea World
empire, not from O’Barry’s appeal to conscience.
O’Barry’s reputation took a beating from the much
publicized “failure” of the Sugarloaf project: Ric Trout et al
left in a huff, accusing O’Barry of fakery. Joe Roberts left in a
huff, taking the Ocean Reef Club dolphins to a sea pen on the
Indian River, near their capture point. Someone cut the fence
and released those dolphins before they could be freeze-branded
for identification, so no one really knows if they survived or
not. It seems likely, however, that they did.
Anticipating federal seizure of the ex-Navy dolphins
as result of complaints by Trout and others, O’Barry and Good
III released two of those dolphins near Sugarloaf. O’Barry
argues that the release would have succeeded if Trout had not
lured them back with a Navy “recall pinger.” Others claim both
dolphins were injured and starving when recaptured. Trout still
has one of them. The others of their group were returned to
Navy duty. O’Barry and Good III were heavily fined for having
released the two dolphins without a permit.
Even leveling all f a i r criticisms at O’Barry, his
books are an absorbing and inspiring two-part self-portrait of a
marine Man of La Mancha. His commitment is enduring, his
successes have reduced the universe of suffering, his failures
have not increased suffering, and he has undeniably broadened
human awareness and compassion.

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