I have been asked countless of times “ How did you become a dolphin trainer?” What I have come to learn over the past 30 years with my work at Dolphin Discovery and ABC Animal Training that my story is unique.
No, I didn’t grow up loving dolphins and wanting to be a mermaid. I actually have no memory of Flipper TV series. I had three childhood “heroes”. Tarzan, Dr. Dolittle and Abraham Lincoln. I read obsessively about Honest Abe, never missed a Tarzan episode and dreamed that when I grew up I would travel to Africa so I too could swing on Jungle vines, call the elephants and lions to fight alongside me to battle and banish the horrid animal poachers.
When I did grow up, moving and living in Africa to research wild animals was an unattainable dream. I settled on a state university earning degrees in Wildlife Management and Biology which focused primarily on white-tailed deer and ruffed grouse management--- this failed to impress me and I was lost in the world.
Having graduated from the University with student loans I set off to work on several animal related research internships and my debt only continued to rise. I was forced to find “real work” to pay the bills and found myself as the first female arborist in the Windy City and I took several classes to be a licensed horticulturalist. Still not impressed and very much lost in the world I sent countless applications to the Peace Corp and was never accepted.
The need to work for money ruled my life, and after falling from a very large Queen Palm in Florida I began to think that at the young age of 25 I would never find my way, indeed life for me was sad and lonely. To fight off this loneliness I decided to accomplish one life goal to learn scuba diving. The check out dives in the Florida Keys did impress me so I quit my tree trimming/horticultural job with great gusto and my street dog Furface and I moved to the Keys. I worked on a dive boat for over a year and for the first time in my life I grew to recognize happiness.
The University debts weren’t going away, I wasn’t making near enough money. I added many more jobs, some perfect for me with tour boats where I combined bartending and teaching about the oceans and all it’s amazing creatures and other jobs. I was completely at home under the water and was called ShelleyFish by my customers.
In my continual search for paid employment I interviewed and became employed at a local marine animal facility, my job was again to teach about the ocean and it’s creatures. The facility had dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, crocodiles, tropical fish, ocean fish, sea birds and birds of prey. One day, a sea lion trainer position became open and I was told the job was mine but I had to quit all the other jobs so that I could dedicate the time the job required. I gladly said goodbye to the hotel cleaning job, found more roommates and worked full time as sealion trainer. Sassy and Classy were the best teachers I could have asked for. I found my place in the world and discovered that animal training was easy for me.
I grew up with a lasting negative impression on zoos and by extension any animal living in captive care. Back in those days, some 40-50 years ago, animals were housed in concrete cages and this didn’t meet with my African dream to research wild animals and save them all from horrid poachers. I was an active and vocal member of Greenpeace believing in their cause. So when one day I heard a public announcement that a famous anti-dolphin advocate Russ Rector was giving a lecture I went to it with an open mind and heart wondering what evils I was going to learn about with the dolphins in captivity.
This is what I saw and learned. Mr. Rector showed a film where dolphins were captured in nets, while still alive the dolphins were cut into fish bait and these chunks of dolphin flesh were used to fish for sharks. The fished sharks had their fins cut off, the sharks finless body dumped overboard where they unceremoniously sank to the bottom of the ocean and drowned. Mr. Rector then lectured us dripping with emotion on the horrors of dolphin living in captivity, the four facilities in the Florida Keys must be made accountable and responsible for such dolphin atrocities as we just saw in the film. There was NO mention on the equally horrid deaths of the sharks.
It was then and there I saw the obvious deliberate fallacies by Russ Rector, PETA and their cohorts. The dolphin place I was working at had zero to do with this cruel fishing practice nor did any of my friends who worked at the other dolphin places. In fact, the care the animals received was better than the life I was currently living. The animals ate full and diverse diets every day, their habitats were clean and enriching, and their medical care was phenomenal. Me, on the other hand, I was still struggling to make enough money, my University debt was in default, I ate poor quality cheap fast food, I had no medical insurance and my habitat had far too many humans living in one house to pay the rent.
And what up with his messaging? Dolphins were given more importance in the right to life than sharks. This is NOT who I am, all species are of equal value and all deserve to be treated with respect.
This was and still is in deep conflict with the dolphin facilities I personally know. Contrary to Russ Rector, PETA and their band of liars, the dolphin facilities messaging was and still is authentic and with purpose. We taught and continue to teach the public about the intrinsic value of all species, and how our actions affect these animals and what we can do to promote a clean and healthy planet.
Saving the world through dolphins is real. I found my place in the world through dolphins and with dolphins and I have never looked back on this amazing journey.