To Free a Dolphin

To Free a Dolphin

by Richard O'Barry, Keith Coulbourn


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781580631020
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/20/2000
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.32(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Richard O'Barry is the founder and executive director of Dolphin Project, Inc. A world-renowned advocated for dolphin freedom, O'Barry received the 1991 United Nations Environmental Achievement Award for his accomplishments in dolphin re-adaptation. he resides in Coconut Grove, Florida.

Keith Coulbourn is a mystery writer and former newspaper journaist. He lives in Miami, Florida.

Read an Excerpt

To Free a Dolphin

By Richard O'Barry, Keith Coulbourn

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Richard O'Barry and Keith Coulbourn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58063-102-0



As I was walkin' down the street,
Whistlin' the blues to the tappin' of my feet,
Some old crank called the cops on the beat ...
And that's the bag I'm in.

— Fred Neil, "That's the Bag I'm In"

WE HAD ALL GATHERED, my old adversaries and I, in the two-story federal district courthouse on lovely tree-shaded Simonton Street of old Key West. For almost thirty years I had been tweaking the federal government's nose about its incestuous ties to the billion-dollar captive-dolphin industry, daring them to call me on it, almost begging them to debate. I had dedicated my life to exposing them in their colossal perfidy, just as they had dedicated their lives, it seemed, to ignoring me.

Until now.

Now that I had freed a pair of dolphins — just moments before an army of federal, state, and local law-enforcement officers swept down upon us by land, sea, and air to confiscate them — now it was payback time, and they came down on me with all their bureaucratic wrath. When translated from the garble of governmentese, the charge was transporting and releasing two dolphins without permits.

Charged with me was Lloyd A. Good III, director of Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary, where all this had happened, barely seventeen miles east by northeast on US 1 from Key West. Lloyd, whom I had come to think of as a surprising mixture of brilliance and buffoonery, was a burly young man with long blond hair and a beard. He was also the eldest son of the man who owned most of Lower Sugarloaf Key.

I was among the first to arrive at the courthouse that morning. I had been living in Paris, helping put together the first European halfway house for captive dolphins. I'd flown in the day before with a single suit of clothes, the clothes I had been wearing in Paris. This included brown boat shoes, a dolphin tie, khaki pants, and a brown tweed coat. Tweed in Key West? It was the dead of winter but compared with Paris, Key West was balmy, and as I dressed that morning, I smiled. Though tweed was comfortable in Paris, I wondered idly how many people had ever worn tweed so near the tropics. Surely, I thought, no one with any choice. But I would wear it anyway, not merely because I had no choice, but as a reminder that my heart now lay with my love in Paris.

I was waiting in the parking lot when Lloyd, my codefendant, arrived. When he climbed out of his pickup, I couldn't believe my eyes. He was wearing the very same thing as I — brown boat shoes, khaki pants, and a brown tweed coat. I looked from him to myself again just to make sure. Yes! And I almost laughed. We looked like a couple of German tourists. I walked over to him. "Lloyd," I said, "look at what we're wearing. This is all I've got."

It all came rushing back, that endless time at Sugarloaf, a twilight zone of hoping, planning, desperate struggles, and bizarre behaviors. What memories! As we walked into the courtroom, I was having one of those ding moments, when everything suddenly becomes blindingly clear, and I could now see that I had to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Legally, we were dead. The United States Department of Commerce had three brilliant lawyers, two men and one woman, who had been preparing for this encounter for the past two years. They had a gallery of twenty witnesses ready to testify. Lloyd and I, defending ourselves, could barely talk to each other. In fact, the last time I had spoken to him on the phone, I had hung up on him. Lloyd and I couldn't even agree about how to free captive dolphins, a debate that was at the center of the storm at Sugarloaf. I had freed a dozen dolphins; Lloyd had freed none. His experience with dolphins consisted of training Sugar, the family pet of about thirty years.

Before the trial got under way I had given this some heavy thought and believed that our only sensible course was to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court, to plead ignorance and nolo contendere (no contest), pay our fine, and get on with our lives.

This was a civil case, not criminal, and we faced a total fine of $60,000, though prosecutors would urge the judge to increase it. I couldn't personally pay even a portion of that, but in a flamboyant gesture I informed Lloyd and his mother, Miriam, that I would pay whatever fine was assessed against both of us if we could simply end the trial. Supporters of mine in Europe — a hot German rock 'n' roll band, Kyd Moses, in particular — had pledged to raise whatever I needed by doing benefit performances. "I'll pay the whole thing," I said, "if we can just nolo contendere out of this thing."

Lloyd's mother, a tall and lovely woman, saw the wisdom of my proposition, but Lloyd was of another mind.

So I was in the middle of a trial with a codefendant I couldn't see eye-to-eye with, both of us representing ourselves not before a jury of our peers, whose opinion we might expect to sway, but before a judge: Judge Peter A. Fitzpatrick. I couldn't tell a thing simply by looking at him, so I studied his body language. He seemed systematic, patient, a good listener. Perfect, I thought.

Lloyd and I had been charged as if we had done everything together, but in fact we had been opposed at key moments, and my defense strategy was to separate myself from him. Early on I sensed the breath of doom and urged the court to accept my plea so that I could get out of there and start paying my fine. In a private session with the judge, opposing counsel, and Lloyd, I explained that justice seemed to depend directly on how much money one had, and I had no money. "Tell me what the fine is and I'll arrange to pay it."

The judge, who functions as a referee, said that if both sides struck a deal, that would be okay with him. He would still, however, need evidence to be presented in order to assess penalties. The government lawyers would have agreed with my attempted plea, but because Lloyd refused, the trial was on, a methodical march of witnesses who told their own bureaucratic version of the tragicomic events at Sugarloaf.

Could this contorted view of things become the official version of what had happened? Was this to be my legacy? What about our plan to free the dolphins? Our devotion to them? The heartache, magic, and dreams of glory? In their spin of what happened at Sugarloaf, federal witnesses were skipping the parts that I believed really mattered. I gazed out the second-story courtroom window at the dark green of the mahoganies lining the parking lot of the courthouse; from below I heard the muted street sounds of horns honking, a distant siren. Then suddenly it all came back, the very moment this nightmare began.

And how different things were then, a mere seven years ago. Seven years? It seemed like seven lifetimes.



You want my advice? Get a life. — Bubba Jones

MY OWN CAR, A twenty-year-old BMW, would break down on the one-hundred-mile trip to Melbourne, Florida, so I rented one — a new, gleaming white Lincoln Town Car — got in and slammed the door. What a sound! No, I didn't pay for it. I can't afford such things. I use frequent flyer miles for rental cars because I fly a lot. I don't pay for flying either. I'm a dolphin troubleshooter, and people who want my services pay my expenses. When people discover a captive dolphin in trouble, they call me for help, and off I go. It sounds crazy, I know, but that's what I do, and it's not that I chose to do it. For a long time, I tried not to do it. I had my own life. But they wouldn't go away, these problems, and because I was a big part in getting them started, I couldn't say no. I trained the original television star Flipper, you see, and a lot of the trouble captive dolphins are in now is because of me.

I had been in the captivity industry for ten years. I captured marine mammals for the Miami Seaquarium — including Carolina Snowball, the rare albino dolphin still proudly mounted in the Seaquarium. Then I became a trainer there and met Ricou Browning, a film director who was preparing dolphins for the role of Flipper and needed someone to help him train them. Though the character of Flipper in the movies and TV series was a male, the role was played by five female dolphins. I had to know not only what Flipper the amazing TV dolphin would do in whatever circumstances the writers conjured up, but also what the actual dolphin playing Flipper could do. Sometimes it worked the other way, my discovering something new the dolphins could do and the writers working it into a script. The dolphins had no idea they were playing a role of course. I was tricking them into doing what I wanted them to by giving and withholding their food.

A dolphin that is not hungry will not do tricks. If I wanted them to do a flip, they would get no fish until they flipped. Same for tail- walking, jumping through hoops, scooting up on the deck with a big smile and wagging their tail-flukes. All this was nonsense to them, but they did it anyway because it was the only way they would be fed. And to me it seemed perfectly okay while I was doing it.

During those years, I was too busy cleverly doing the job to think about what I was doing. But when the TV series finally shut down and I had time to be with myself, I realized that this whole thing about dolphins jumping through hoops was terribly bizarre. I knew it was somehow wrong, but I wasn't clear about why — it was only a feeling. I made a pilgrimage to India to see Avatar Meher Baba, whom I thought might help me understand the feelings I was experiencing. I didn't expect a miracle and I didn't get a miracle, but when I got back, a friend of mine called and said that Kathy, my favorite dolphin, was dying in a tank at Miami Seaquarium. I hopped on my bicycle and peddled furiously across the causeway to the Seaquarium, where I found her floating in a tank, barely hanging on to life.

At first I couldn't believe it was Kathy. She played Flipper most of the time because she was so smart, so beautiful, and so loyal. And now — to see her in this condition was heartbreaking. Her skin was black. She was blistered, her eyes lifeless. I jumped in the water with her. She swam into my arms. I hugged her to me and she died. I tried to save her, I desperately tried to undo what I felt I had done to her. But I was too late. She died of a broken heart.

You cannot undo the things you do; you can only make amends. After Kathy's death, I formed the Dolphin Project, dedicated to the freedom of captive dolphins, and, to my surprise, I began getting calls about dolphins in trouble all over the world.

Rarely does anyone call me first when they see a dolphin in trouble and want to help. They call one of the high-profile organizations — Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, or the Humane Society of the United States — organizations that sound like they're into helping animals. They do help some animals, I'm sure, but in my opinion they're mainly set up for memberships, dues, and goals of the highest abstraction. They aren't usually the ones in the trenches, doing the hands-on work involved in rescuing animals. If someone who discovers a dolphin in trouble is serious about helping, they keep trying and eventually someone refers them to me. Then, if I'm not already committed, I hit the dolphin trail again.

These giant nonprofit corporations used to refer people to me routinely. But no more. Having tried and failed to get them involved in my work, I've become one of their severest critics. Helping animals is not their main goal, I tell people. They're mainly into marketing themselves and collecting money.

So what can people do who really want to help animals? All over the world, local organizations have sprung up to handle problems of animal abuse. These are the people I work with most of the time. These grassroots organizations can handle problems related to most animals, but with dolphins they need an expert. And that's where I come in.

There's no way to know in advance what can or should be done for a desperate captive dolphin. Each case is different. I check out the dolphin personally, its health and history. Sometimes the dolphin is a candidate for freedom, sometimes not. Whatever the dolphin needs, I help organize a campaign to make it happen. First I get the message out. Without public support, we can do nothing. Once we get the media's attention, these campaigns tend to take on a life of their own.

And what do I get out of it? I get expenses, including travel, which is how I pick up so many frequent flyer miles. Also, sometimes, an invitation to speak.

* * *

The trip to Melbourne was like that, a speaking engagement. I speak to groups whenever I can because I'm always trying to get other people involved in the dolphin and whale captivity issue. Meantime, it's an opportunity to sell books and T-shirts. Because of my nonprofit status, I don't sell these things as such. I arrange the T-shirts and books on a table, and announce that for a $20 donation they can have one or the other. If all goes well, I make enough to pay my rent and a month's phone bill.

In my white rental Lincoln, I drove by the cottage where I lived in Coconut Grove, the original Miami, and loaded two boxes of books and a couple dozen T-shirts. Then I took off for Melbourne, 150 miles up the coast. I was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt driving up, but in my bag were my power clothes — a double-breasted dark-blue suit and a maroon tie with gray dolphins and whales. I would wear that at the talk because this group included engineers and scientists from nearby Cape Canaveral and I wanted them to take me seriously.

When I first began making appearances on behalf of dolphins, I gave no thought to what I wore. What mattered, I thought, was the message, a message about dolphins so important that I could have appeared in a clown costume and it would be okay. I showed up at news conferences, TV talk shows, debates, and book signings in whatever I happened to be wearing at the time. I should have known better. As a stuntman and character actor in dozens of feature films and TV shows, I always dressed the part. But I had the impression that there was a big difference between real life and make-believe, that you didn't need to dress the part if you were living it.

And I was dead wrong. I realized this after an appearance on the Today Show with Jane Pauley, during which, via satellite, I debated someone from a swim-with-the-dolphins program in the Florida Keys. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt with Top Siders and no socks. I looked like I had been working on a boat — in fact, I probably had been. I won the debate. No doubt of that. But when I got home, flushed with victory, my wife, Martha, brought me down to earth. She was good at that. A cool, analytic Virgo, she shook her head and said, "No, Ric. You didn't win. You lost because of how you looked."

I couldn't believe what she was saying. "How I looked? Are you kidding? What does that matter? What does it even mean? Didn't you listen to what I said? How can you say that I lost?" I went on and on, my arms flailing around. I hate to lose. I don't take criticism well, either. Martha was a beautiful woman, tall and thin. When I was wrong about something, she had a way of looking straight at me without blinking, which she was doing now. We were married nineteen years, then got divorced. It was not about the clothes. It was something else, a triangle, Martha and I and the dolphins. No, it was me. I blew it. I didn't have my priorities lined up. Anyway, we went our separate ways. We're still friends. We get together now and then. But it's over.

And since then I've been at least trying to look the part I'm playing. But what is that exactly? How is a dolphin activist supposed to look? I've dressed up and I've dressed down, I've tried a dozen things, including the power suit I packed for the talk in Melbourne. It depends on the venue. The outfit I like best is a jean jacket with "Dolphin Project" embroidered in blue on the back. I feel most comfortable dressed like that — most of the time. Whatever else I wear at a public function where there will be questions from the crowd, I usually wear sneakers, because of the vegans. I learned the hard way about the vegans — a group of strict vegetarians who delight in attending animal welfare meetings, their eyes cocked for leather shoes or belts. They're experts at exposing a certain hypocrisy. If you're willing to wear leather shoes, they argue, you might as well kill animals yourself and eat them. So I wear the sneakers and a web belt, and up front I tell the crowd that I'm a vegetarian or at least I'm trying to be one, but also I'm only human and sometimes make mistakes.

* * *

The talk at Melbourne was the first I'd given in a while. I had been invited up by someone on the phone, Joe Roberts, who said he had heard of me and wanted me to speak to his group, the Down Under Dive Club.

He said he expected at least one hundred people, standing room only, so we arranged that I would drive up and give the talk at the Palm Bay Yacht Club, which faces the Indian River Lagoon. I would show a video and answer questions. I wouldn't receive any payment, but he would provide the audio and visual equipment I'd need for the talk and a complimentary hotel room for my stay. I could sell books, T-shirts, anything I wanted.


Excerpted from To Free a Dolphin by Richard O'Barry, Keith Coulbourn. Copyright © 2000 Richard O'Barry and Keith Coulbourn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
CHAPTER 1 Payback (February 1999),
CHAPTER 2 The Long Road Back (Summer 1992),
CHAPTER 3 The Mouse That Cringed,
CHAPTER 4 A Good Plan Is Hard to Find,
CHAPTER 5 Battering the Gates of Orc,
CHAPTER 6 This Is No Ordinary Love,
CHAPTER 7 No Burning Bushes Needed,
CHAPTER 8 In Bed with an Elephant,
CHAPTER 9 On This Slippery Slope,
CHAPTER 10 Bricks in the Mix,
CHAPTER 11 In Chains,
CHAPTER 12 Rooms with a Dolphin View,
CHAPTER 13 No Way Out,
CHAPTER 14 Down to Earth (Summer 1997),
CHAPTER 15 To Free or Not to Free,
CHAPTER 16 Justice in America,
About the Authors,

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To Free a Dolphin 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most powerful dolphin books that I have ever read in my life. Richard is a truely amazing person. He is really dedicated to saving these dolphins and I applaude him. This is a great book for anyone who loves dolphins and wants them to be free.