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Dolphins Lose a Friend: Russ Rector

| Mark J. Palmer
Topics: Captivity Industry, Dolphin and Whale Trade, Dolphins

Activist and longtime dolphin advocate, not to mention a very funny curmudgeon, Russ Rector died last week.  He was a pioneer in efforts to end the captivity of dolphins, having himself been a dolphin trainer before quitting the occupation.

Russ worked in his early days as a trainer at Ocean World, a dolphinarium in Fort Lauderdale.  Ocean World isn’t there anymore – Russ played a key roll in shutting it down.  He was also an active and very loud opponent of the dolphin and whale captivity industry, regularly blowing the whistle on the misdeeds of the Miami Seaquarium, SeaWorld, and many swim with dolphins programs.

Russ predicted the danger of orca attacks on trainers, telling the Miami Herald in 1999:  “Keeping those animals in small concrete boxes and making them do stupid animal tricks makes them angry and dangerous.”  The orca Tilikum had just been found with the dead body of a man floating in his tank – the man apparently hid in SeaWorld Orlando after closing time and went for a swim with Tilikum, with ending with fatal results.  Later, in 2010, just as Russ predicted, Tilikum turned on SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and killed her.

Russ was controversial even among animal rights organizations.  He sharply criticized plans of some activist groups to release Lolita back into her home waters, feeling the orca was now too old to be successfully transported and that reintroduction of her back to the wild was not advisable because of her age and condition.  

Dave Phillips, EII Executive Director called Russ “a rare breed; one of the key figures in the anti-captivity pantheon.  When taking a call from Russ – which was often – you’d better be ready to settle back in your chair and be schooled on all the things that could be done better.  More often than not, he was right.”

Russ worked closely with Earth Island’s IMMP and lead activist Michele Bollo in San Diego to shine a light on the US Navy’s inhumane, and wasteful dolphin captivity program. Russ pounded the Navy over cruel conditions, and bogus claims that the dolphins were critical for military use.  Russ trained Michele to undertake a massive video effort documenting what the Navy was doing to dolphins kept in San Diego – including video of dolphins dying in pens that the Navy intended to keep secret.

“Russ was a unique combination of tremendous dolphin experience and human inclination,” notes Michele Bollo. “He was well-experienced with governmental entities that help keep captivity alive.  He constantly developed tactics within the context of a bigger strategy.  He never failed to pick up the phone and develop a relationship or harass a foe strategically. 

“He ingratiated himself into the middle of the big picture,” Bollo added.  “I learned a hell of a lot from him and hope to carry forth jointly-developed action to his satisfaction.   I’ll miss him dearly.”

Rick Trout, who also worked closely with Russ on captive dolphin issues, told the Miami New Times:  "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.  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."

Russ and I often discussed Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project’s (IMMP’s) campaign to end the dolphin hunts in Taiji.  Russ was good to bounce ideas off of, although woe to you if he disagreed with your strategy!  

Like many, I enjoyed talking with Russ on the phone for very long periods of time and trading gibes with him on Facebook.  He was dedicated and cranky, and he also had a marvelous sense of humor.  Some were intimidated by him, but I admired him, his tenacity, his long experience, and his ability to get to the heart of matters.  We will all miss him.

Russ will be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea in his beloved Florida waters of the Atlantic.  


Photo Credit:  Charles Trainor Jr., Miami Herald