Tim Zimmermann | Longreads | April 2015 | 25 minutes (6,193 words)

Panama City Beach, Florida is set on the alluring waters of the Gulf Of Mexico, in northwestern Florida. It’s a town of cookie-cutter condos and sprawling outlet malls, built almost entirely on the idea that blazing sun, a cool sea, white sand beaches, and copious amounts of booze are an irresistible formula for human happiness (or at least a pretty damn good time). Everything about the place—from the ubiquitous fast food, to the endless chain stores, to the Brobdingnagian miniature golf courses—is designed to anticipate and then slake the vast and relentless array of human desires.

Prime among the entertainment offerings is Gulf World Marine Park. It sits on Front Beach Road, the main drag that parallels the seafront, and promises sun-addled or bored families a respite from the nearby beach. By day you can swim with dolphins (“guaranteed”) or watch them perform the standard flips and tricks in a show pool, check out the sharks and stingrays, or watch the sea lions act goofy. By night you can watch “Illusionist Of The Year” (it’s not clear who made the designation) Noah Wells unleash his “Maximum Magic.” “It’s Always Showtime At Gulf World” says the marketing department. And that’s true: The entire place shuts down for only two days a year (Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Gulf World is not SeaWorld; it’s much smaller, less expensive, (though a family of four will still fork over $96 just to get past the gate), and there are no killer whales. But it is more typical of the 32 marine parks that keep dolphins and do business in the United States, and it’s these local parks which happen to house the vast majority of the captive dolphins (according to Ceta-Base, which tracks marine parks, there are currently some 509 dolphins at marine parks in the U.S.; about 144 are located at SeaWorld). If SeaWorld is the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey when it comes to marine mammal entertainment, Gulf World is one of the many small, local carnivals that do a pretty decent trade out of the limelight. And Gulf World happens to be where Ashley Guidry—a brassy blonde with minimal experience, and a simple application accompanied by a Polaroid—happened to land a job in April 2001, at the age of 27.

Guidry’s circuitous journey to Gulf World was only slightly unusual, in that she had never been infected by the dolphin trainer virus, which induces an acute fever, especially in young women, that can only be cured by a wetsuit and daily encounters with Flipper. Instead, Guidry earned a B.A. and then a Master of Political Science from the University Of Southern Mississippi, and figured she was headed directly toward law school. It was while sitting atop a rock on the Appalachian Trail that she suddenly realized she didn’t want to become a lawyer. That life-changing epiphany prompted a global odyssey with stops in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Jamaica, among other exotic locales. When she eventually ended up in Panama City and got the call from Gulf World, she thought, “Sweet, this is going to be awesome. Anywhere I can be around animals will be a pretty good gig. It’s outside in the sun. In Florida. With swimming. This might be perfect match for me.” Or, as she puts it now: “Who wouldn’t want to be around dolphins every day?”

Guidry, now 41, is lively and funny, yet thoughtful. She speaks in staccato bursts while waving her hands in the air. She lives with her husband and twin five-year-old boys in a modest Panama City Beach single-family home just a short drive from Gulf World. When she first started working there, she happily scrubbed fish buckets and was eager to learn. She liked that the dolphin show was more about teaching the audience about the dolphins and their intelligence and less about circus tricks. Trainers didn’t ride the animals or jump off their noses. Instead, they blindfolded a dolphin and taught the audience about echolocation, or sent the dolphins on speed runs and talked about how fast they are in the wild. They showed the audience tail slaps and breaches, and other natural behaviors.

Guidry with Sandy during a session.
Guidry works Sandy, whom she loved for her independent spirit.

After about a year at Gulf World, Guidry got into the water with a dolphin for the first time. As the dolphin, called Cola, swam up to her she was so giddy she felt slightly embarrassed. Over time, her connections with Gulf World’s dolphins deepened into true emotional attachment. She saw baby calves—”so cute and wrinkly”—being born, and watched them grow into young adults. She learned to appreciate the distinctive personalities of each dolphin, and felt the deep satisfaction of developing an especially close bond with a few of them. “They pick and choose who they are going to be friends with. It’s calculated on their part,” Guidry says. “I’ve watched them fuck with people, so when you are one of the chosen ones it is amazing. It is one of the few choices they have and I was honored to be chosen.”

Guidry had a particular affinity for the wild-caught females—like Delphene, Brinnon and Sandy—because they retained a little streak of wildness and independence. Deep down she felt that they were someplace they weren’t meant to be, and she wanted to do everything she could to make up for it. The memory of Delphene swimming over to spend time with her just hours before Delphene died in December 2003 can still bring tears to Guidry’s eyes. “It’s not like a pet at all. It is a mutual respect kind of thing. You try to hook them up while they are there, and they hook you up. They don’t hurt you,” she says. “It has changed who I am to the core of my being.”

The intensity and reward of building those sorts of relationships with an intelligent being felt like a blessing. “I was always joyful back then,” Guidry says. ” ‘Oh my God, I am so sorry you work in a bank,’ I’d think. My job is awesome.”

Still, Guidry wasn’t blissful enough to be totally oblivious to some of the more difficult realities of marine parks. Apart from the knowledge that her favorites had been caught from the wild, in 2002, the year after she was hired, Guidry was confronted by the hard fact that dolphins die or sometimes have to be euthanized. Jasmine, not yet two years old, died of undetermined causes, while Allie, barely three, died of zygomycosis, an infection often caused by common fungi found in soil or decaying vegetation. A third young dolphin called A.J. had to be put down after exhibiting signs of neurological problems.

Guidry was involved in A.J.’s euthanasia, her first. While she didn’t question the need for it, she remembers how emotional it was to separate little A.J. from his mother, Brinnon and pull him to the side of the pool, put him on a stretcher, and stand by while he was injected with a sedative and then a drug. Even the vet was crying, Guidry recalls. “Well, they don’t put that in the trainer handbook,” she thought, heartbroken, as A.J. faded from life and was carried away.

There were other discordant oddities of marine park life, as well, such as the dolphins who would sometimes be found in the mornings on the walkway around the pool, having jumped or been pushed over the wall during the night (mostly they were fine, despite dropping onto concrete; though at least one calf died). Enough dolphins came out of the pool (a number were multiple escapees) that after the calf died Gulf World added a stainless rail at the top of the show pool’s acrylic wall to try to prevent dolphins from coming over the top. There was also a rescued rough-toothed dolphin that died of an infection just before her release. Another rescued dolphin was released with great fanfare and media attention, and was mortally wounded by tiger sharks almost immediately after. “Sharks are a major threat when releasing marine mammals and turtles back into the wild,” says Ron Hardy, 71, one of Gulf World’s longtime co-owners. “They are a major threat when rescuing animals on the beach. We have had stranded animals killed within feet of the rescue team.”

In her early years Guidry found these rude realities—especially the prevalence of illness and death—troubling but not existentially so. Instead, she told herself, she would simply have to learn to cope with the fact that her awesome job had some awesomely painful moments. She felt as if she was helping the animals—some of whom were rescued off Florida’s beaches—learning about their capabilities, and teaching the public to care about them. It wasn’t until she confronted the fact that the dolphin park business, especially the business of breeding the dolphins in captivity to sustain the populations, requires the routine shipping of dolphins in and out of multiple parks, including Gulf World, that her moral compass started to twitch.

Guidry performing a "rocket ride" with a dolphin during a show.
A dolphin boosts Guidry on a “rocket ride” during a show.

* * *

In 2006, after Guidry had been at Gulf World for about five years, the trainers started getting word that Lightning, Gulf World’s prime breeder at the time, would be shipped out. Guidry hadn’t experienced a transport from Gulf World yet. As she considered what it would involve, she realized that she didn’t like the prospect. Lightning, she knew, had been captured off Cape San Blas, which lies just to the east of Panama City. All he knew was whatever he remembered from his life in the wild, plus his life at Gulf World. The only dolphins he had relationships with were the females he had been living with at Gulf World, like Sandy and Delphene (who were captured with him off Cape San Blas). Now he was going to be plucked from the pool on a stretcher, dropped into a custom-built transport crate, called a “wet box,” and shipped by truck and plane most of the way across the country to a dolphin pool at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, of all places. He is going to make babies, the trainers were told. And they will ship us one of their boys.

On one level, Guidry understood that to breed dolphins in captivity, and to promote a diverse gene population, the males—like any breeding studs—needed to be taken to new females once their DNA had inundated the population they were with. And because she knew that captive breeding was the industry’s answer to public opposition to wild captures (which she also didn’t like), Guidry tried to view breeding loan transport as a necessary evil. “He’s needed elsewhere,” Guidry told herself, regarding Lightning. “We need to do this. It’s for the good of all marine parks.”

She did her best to see it that way, to force her heart to accept the greater-good logic her mind was peddling. She had seen dolphins separated from the Gulf World group and brought into a side pool or the med pool, put into a stretcher, and craned out of the water before. Some dolphins were accustomed for the process, some not. Either way, she felt, it was a stressful and disorienting experience for animals she cared about. But those removals had always been for medical reasons, and the dolphins had been treated and returned to the Gulf World clan. Now the removal was for business reasons. Instead of a brief extraction followed by a return to familiar waters and familiar animals, to Guidry it was a, “See you later. It’s been a good five years,” followed by a long and alien journey to an unfamiliar environment amidst unfamiliar dolphins. Moreover, when a SeaWorld dolphin called Presley had been brought in to Gulf World in 2004, Guidry had seen what appeared to be deep bruising of his skin when he was removed from the wet box, presumably from banging against the sides and the pressure of his weight against the stretcher he was suspended in. With transport, it was hard for her to not consider things from the dolphin’s point of view, and it was hard not to be troubled by what she imagined it would be like.

Presley being transported to Gulf World.
SeaWorld’s Presley arriving at Gulf World after a long transport. His extensive bruising gave Guidry qualms about the practice of transporting dolphins between marine parks.

On the day Lightning was to be transported, he was moved into the med pool, and Guidry went poolside to spend a few final moments with him. She felt miserable, and she wasn’t the only one. As the truck with Lightning’s crate started to pull away from the pool area, another trainer couldn’t contain his emotions and had to step aside. “I didn’t like having to say goodbye,” Guidry says. “And I was too sensitive to the idea of him going on a long and distressing journey.”

As soon as Lightning shipped out, a new breeding male, Pablo, arrived from the Mirage. “The terms of the loan are worked out each time between the participating facilities,” Ron Hardy explains. “Usually, if a male comes to our facility and we start producing offspring, we would get the first offspring and owners of the male would get the next, and it keeps alternating.” Guidry’s moral compass continued to twitch.

In 2011, a new manager (and co-owner) arrived at Gulf World. Dan Blasko, 62, had spent years training killer whales and dolphins at SeaWorld in Orlando, before heading off in the 1990s to run the Mirage dolphin pool where Lightning ended up. Guidry liked Blasko. He was knowledgeable and experienced, and seemed like a straight shooter. But she also felt that Blasko’s arrival coincided with a change that was underway at Gulf World, marked by a greater emphasis on revenue and profit. For example, a new pool was recently completed so that Gulf World could ramp up its lucrative dolphin encounter program, in which guests now pay $175 or more to swim with a dolphin. “The past two years have been two of the biggest years we have had,” Gulf World’s Hardy acknowledges. “We are trying to respond to the desires of the public.”

Blasko also supervised the creation of a new dolphin show. It was a far cry from the show of Guidry’s early years, with its emphasis on education and conservation. The new show was a high-energy production, with cranking music, lots of jumps, and trainers riding the dolphins. “The audience freaking loves it,” says Guidry. “And they want to be splashed.” Hardy agrees the new show is more showy, but adds “our education director has greatly increased our education presence since Dan arrived.”

At first, Guidry had been excited to create a new show, because it meant the dolphins would be engaged in new training and new behaviors. But she quickly felt that showmanship and wowing the audience was the priority, rather than educating them. When she was a young trainer she had thought it would be cool to do a “Roman Ride,” a trick where a trainer rides two dolphins in a harness across the pool. When she tried it in preparation for the new show it just felt wrong.

Between the two daily shows, the multiple sessions of swimming with guests throughout the day (up to five a day in the busy summer months), and the lengthy “meet and greet” after each show (in which guests lined up and paid $10 to have their picture taken with a dolphin), Gulf World’s dolphins were working hard to help keep Gulf World’s turnstiles clicking, and its cash registers ringing.

“We come to work knowing we are going to create bonds and memories that will stay in our hearts forever,” a trainer declares during the dolphin show. But the dolphins are also there to help create memories that generate revenue: The upselling during the show for the Meet And Greet session, the Trainer For A Day program, and other fee-generating add-ons, is relentless. “We have plenty of dolphins to accomplish the programs without overworking them,” Hardy says. “Matter of fact we rotate our dolphins and some days some are not used at all in presentations. Gulf World meets all APHIS regulations for interactive programming including monitoring time of participation.”

What really started to bother Guidry was what appeared to be an intensification of the breeding program. Shortly after Blasko arrived, he started to train Gulf World’s staff and dolphins on artificial insemination procedures. Artificial insemination (AI) was a way to produce dolphin calves and diversify the captive dolphin gene pool without going to the trouble and expense of shipping breeding males from park to park. It involved teaching males to give semen (described shortly, but pretty much what you would imagine), which could be frozen and sent to another park. At the right moment, the semen could then be used to try and fertilize a female whose ovulation cycle was being monitored closely.

Gulf World had dabbled in AI previously, extracting semen from Pablo, the breeding male sent from the Mirage after Lightning had been shipped there in 2006 (Blasko had visited Gulf World and helped demonstrate the collection technique). Now, under Blasko’s management it appeared that AI was going to become a more prominent technique in the effort to produce new dolphin calves. “The AI program is not that old. The neat thing about AI is it eliminates the need to transfer animals back and forth,” Hardy says. “And it’s great for diversity.”

According to Hardy, most of the members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums who hold dolphins (28 U.S. parks belong; 19 have dolphins) are storing sperm from their male dolphins and have agreed that they will share it back and forth. So Gulf World ships its sperm upon request to other parks at no charge, and in return can request sperm to try and impregnate its females. In contrast to the traditional breeding loan, in which calves from an imported male would be allocated between the participating parks, if a park impregnates one or more of its females with imported sperm it gets to keep any calves that are produced. “We all get the better deal, and we have had more and more successes,” Hardy says. “And as we keep moving forward the success rate will be higher and higher.”

Guidry was all for AI and a multi-park “sperm club” in theory, because she hoped it would reduce or eliminate the transports which bothered her so much. But in practice, she found the process a bit creepy and unsettling. When Blasko asked for volunteers to learn how to get semen from Comet, a young male, Guidry politely demurred. But she watched poolside as Blasko talked another female trainer through the process, which involved tapping the area near the genital slit to induce Comet to present his penis, and then stimulating it to ejaculation, catching the semen in a bottle or baggy. Guidry cringed as the trainer had to fish Comet’s penis out, because he was just starting to learn the process. And the coaching that followed got pretty explicit. “To be a fly on the wall for those sessions would make anyone giggle,” Guidry says, adding that the triumphant volunteer started using a photo of Comet’s erect penis as her phone screensaver. “But I felt looked down on that I didn’t jump to jerk Comet off.”

Guidry wasn’t any more comfortable with the procedure to inseminate a female. She was present in 2013 during an attempt to fertilize a young dolphin called Luna, whose mother just happened to be Sandy, Guidry’s favorite dolphin. Early in the morning Luna had been moved to the medical pool, put in a stretcher, and lifted out onto a mat. Her pectoral fins were held against her side to keep her from thrashing. Guidry, who always hated pulling dolphins from the pool because it was stressful for them, was positioned by Luna’s head. With Blasko and a vet supervising, Luna was rolled onto her side. A catheter containing the donor semen was introduced into Luna’s vagina, and with the help of an ultrasound machine was guided into position for the release. The entire procedure took about ten minutes. Guidry was looking straight into Luna’s eye, and there was something about the way Luna was looking back at her that made her feel terrible. “When they are just having sex because they are dolphins that’s fine,” she says. “But it is completely different to see them pull a dolphin out and forcibly do it.”

It is hard to know what Luna was really thinking, but she clearly didn’t like having to give urine samples so her hormonal cycle could be tracked. She could see when trainers were getting ready to collect her urine, and once broke the ribs of a young trainer during the procedure. Guidry also wondered whether Luna was being given any fertility drugs, and asked about it. She was told she wasn’t allowed to know, which made the whole thing feel even more sketchy (asked about this, Hardy replied that Gulf World does not use fertility drugs for AI). “I was kind of offended,” Guidry recalls.

Guidry also didn’t like the policy of forcibly weaning calves from their mothers, which would put the mothers back into the breeding rotation sooner, because once they stopped lactating, their normal ovulation cycle would re-establish itself. A calf might naturally keep nursing two or more years, even after it started to eat fish, meaning the mother might not be ready to breed again for three years. By forcibly weaning the calves after a year and a half–removing them from the main dolphin pools and taking them to a small side pool near the sea lion stadium, or another separate pool—mothers could be ready to start breeding again less than two years after giving birth. Forced weaning sped up the captive breeding process considerably, even if it was harder on the calves and mothers.

“We know the weaning process very well, and we are not weaning animals early,” Hardy says. “Our animals are our most important asset. To do anything that jeopardizes their health would be dumb.” Still, Guidry knew how hard separations could sometimes be, and thought it was especially so for a dolphin mother. And she bridled when she heard female dolphins being referred to as “baby-making machines,” and suggestions that weaning should take place as fast as possible so the baby-making could resume. Though Gulf World’s Hardy insists that “we do not wean offspring any sooner than they would be weaned in the wild,” it didn’t seem that way to Guidry. “It started to feel like a baby mill,” she says.

Brinnon with a calf.
Brinnon, another of Guidry’s favorites, with a calf.

* * *

In September 2011, a young calf called Chopper was born to Maia, one of Gulf World’s females. The father was Sebastian, a male owned by SeaWorld who had been on loan to Gulfarium, a dolphin park just up the coast from Gulf World in Fort Walton Beach. Sebastian had become a prime Gulf World breeder after Lightning had sowed his seed through most of Gulf World’s females and been shipped off to the Mirage in 2006. Pablo, the male breeder the Mirage sent to Gulf World to replace Lightning, had died about seven months after arriving in Florida. That meant Gulf World needed a new male breeder, and Sebastian had been trucked over to Gulf World from SeaWorld Florida in April 2008, staying through November 2011 (he was then sent to Gulfarium, and returned to Gulf World one more time for a three-month stint in early 2012). It was a productive stay. In addition to siring Chopper, that breeding loan produced two other calves, from Sandy and Brinnon, called Jett and Striker.

About a year and a half after being born Chopper was separated from Maia, so she would stop lactating, and sent over to the auxiliary pool near the sea lion stadium, where he could start learning basic trained behaviors. When he was returned to the main dolphin pools late in 2013 to continue his training, Guidry felt bad for the little guy. He was timid, and got picked on by the other dolphins. None of the other trainers seemed that into working with him. When they did work with Chopper, Guidry felt it was perfunctory and that they weren’t really investing themselves in the relationship. For many trainers, it seemed like Chopper was the unwanted step-child.

Guidry figured no one wanted to bond with Chopper because under the breeding loan, everyone knew he belonged to SeaWorld. What was the point of getting attached to a young dolphin who was going to be shipped out at some point? The trainers would arrive at the poolside to start a training session, set their buckets down, and sort out amongst themselves who was going to work each dolphin. No one was ever eager to pick Chopper. More and more, Guidry was starting to take to heart what the dolphins were experiencing and feeling. She thought it was selfish to not give a dolphin your time and attention, to not build a connection, just because it would be hard to see him ship out, so she took it upon herself to give Chopper some attention and training. He responded enthusiastically, and soon enough, Guidry was touched to see, Chopper started to swim over and pick her for training sessions. “For a young dolphin, he was very attached,” Guidry says. “I really seemed to light him up and of course that thrilled me.”

Guidry threw herself into the work with Chopper, teaching him how to do the basics, like swimming through a gate and how to station in one place with other dolphins around. He was easygoing and engaging, a sweetheart of a dolphin, and the bond between them deepened. “Once I had something with him he wanted to hang out with me and it wasn’t about fish,” she says. “It was like ‘thank you for your time’.”

Guidry with baby Chopper.
Guidry showing Chopper the calf some love.

Just as she felt she was really clicking with Chopper, Guidry got word that SeaWorld was going to ship him to Gulfarium. Guidry knew that Gulf World had bought Jett, whose ownership had also gone to SeaWorld as part of the breeding loan. Maybe Gulf World could buy Chopper, too. She went to Blasko, and told him about Chopper’s gentle nature. “If your business relies on [swim-with-dolphin] encounters that are safe, then Chopper is your man,” she advised. Blasko told her he had approached SeaWorld about purchasing Chopper, too, but SeaWorld had declined the offer. When Guidry pressed for a reason, Blasko explained that SeaWorld had been willing to sell Jett because his mother was wild and SeaWorld preferred dolphins that didn’t have a direct, or one-generation, connection to the wild, which could bring criticism and bad PR from animal rights advocates. Chopper, in contrast, came from captive-born parents, and the wild genes in his blood were two generations back. “That makes logical sense,” Hardy says, but in an email later adds, “Both [Jett and Chopper] belonged to SeaWorld and why they chose to keep Chopper and let us keep Jett I do not know.”

Guidry had figured that even if Gulf World couldn’t buy Chopper, he would stay with his mother at Gulf World for a few more years. She was devastated that the sweet little guy she had come to love would be gone within a week, at such a young age, and was surprised at the depth of her emotion and attachment. “Maybe it was a mistake to get to know him,” she says, but you can tell she doesn’t really mean it. She didn’t understand how Gulf World and SeaWorld could be separating him from his mother so young. As much as she hated transports, Chopper was worse because he was just a calf. Guidry had watched mothers freak out as their calves were netted away for medical or other procedures. And she had seen mothers refusing to leave a gate, whistling and vocalizing in distress, after a calf had been sent through to a separate pool. She also worried that Sebastian, Chopper’s father at Gulfarium, might do him harm. Guidry remembered another Gulfarium dolphin, called Zac, whose jaw had been broken by his mother and permanently disfigured (Zac spent most of 2012 at Gulf World before shipping out again, to Marineland Dolphin Adventure near St. Augustine).

Guidry had always been the sort of trainer who voiced her opinions, and she fought hard for Chopper. “I’ve always asked questions, and maybe having my own kids changed what questions I asked with Chopper,” she says. “But to separate moms and babies, I am not okay with that.”

Blasko answered all her questions, told her he understood her feelings, and gave her a hug. But there was little he could do if SeaWorld refused to sell Chopper and wanted to move him to Gulfarium. This was the business. Guidry couldn’t let it go and realized that she simply couldn’t accept this, and that separating Chopper from his mother and moving him to another facility to try and figure out what to do with him next was “breaking her soul” as she put it to one of her colleagues. She saw Chopper as a squeaky, eager, and trusting little dolphin. The industry saw him as a piece in a bigger puzzle to be moved here and there according to the needs of his owner, and the demands of a multi-park captive breeding program. “When I first got the remotest feeling that the dolphins are commodities I thought ‘You are talking about my dolphins,’ ” Guidry says. “I can’t even understand the word commodity.”

Since late 2009, Guidry had been working part-time at Gulf World, because she wanted to spend more time with her young twins. So on the day Chopper was to be shipped to Gulfarium, March 15, 2014, she wasn’t there, to her relief, to see him stretchered from the pool, put in the wet box, and trucked away. Guidry had always been bothered by the many ways in which the welfare of the dolphins would get subordinated to the needs of the business (recently, she had been feuding over the loud power washing equipment used to clean the pool walls, which clearly bothered the sensitive hearing of the dolphins). But Chopper’s departure tipped the balance for her. She didn’t consider herself anti-captivity, but she did consider herself “anti-asshole,” as she put it to a friend. She couldn’t come to grips with the fact that SeaWorld, a company she didn’t work for and had no control over, was taking Chopper away from his mother, and from her, for reasons she felt had nothing to do with Chopper’s well-being. In the end, her love for the dolphins developed into an antipathy for the business. “I refuse to let any of my soul be hardened by a corporation,” she wrote in a journal. “I love what I do. I am proud of what I do. [But] I will not go against my soul. If it doesn’t feel right…I listen.”

Later that week she asked to meet with Blasko and Gulf World’s management team to let them know she would be leaving too. “Do you know why I am here?” she asked. “I think I have a good idea,” Blasko answered. Guidry explained that she was not really a disgruntled employee, but Chopper’s fate had changed everything for her. “If that’s the direction of the business, that’s just not me,” she explained. “It’s just something I have to do.” Gulf World asked her to stay on for a few months to help train some new hires. Guidry agreed. The parting was amicable.

Guidry says her final goodbyes to the dolphins she loves.
Guidry says her final goodbyes to the dolphins she loves.

Today, Guidry remains a little shellshocked by the dramatic turn in her life. She is still trying to process all the feelings unleashed by Chopper, and how they made her start questioning her choices. “It is so raw for me right now. I can’t tell you the emotional roller coaster I am on. I feel nuts,” she says. “Imagine if you had done something your whole life and you realize that, shit, it is just wrong.”

Guidry misses Sandy and the other animals at Gulf World so much “it hurts.” She still chokes up when she recalls how special Chopper was, and is fiercely proud of the fact that she stepped up to give him what she could, despite the pain that followed. She also recognizes that Chopper gave her something, too, a different way of seeing and thinking. “Chopper was a huge catalyst for me, and a big change in my moral compass,” she says.

* * *

On a scorching day last July, a few months after Guidry quit Gulf World, we make the one-hour drive to Fort Walton Beach to visit Chopper at Gulfarium. It is a dinky, rust-flaked facility that sits just off the beach. Opened in 1955, Gulfarium’s 2007 Marine Mammal Inventory Report lists dozens of dolphins who died there between 1974 and 2013, from all manner of illness and infection (one dolphin, called Herman, somehow drowned). Gulfarium is notorious within the Florida marine park world for losing three sea lions who separately managed to escape their enclosure, only to be torn up and killed by Gulfarium’s guard dogs. Another sea lion there asphyxiated, and three others died of either heat stroke or hyperthermia. As you walk toward the entrance from the parking lot, which takes you to a bustling and well-appointed gift shop, there is a sandy area on your right. According to dolphin advocate Russ Rector, who used to work in the Florida marine park industry and has been a longtime critic of Gulfarium, more than 100 animals that died at Gulfarium are buried there.

Chopper shares the small, circular show pool, with his father Sebastian, and a SeaWorld dolphin called Cosmo. Cosmo’s life history, in which he has accumulated a lot of frequent flyer miles, may well be a good indicator of how Chopper’s future will unfold. Born in 2003 at SeaWorld’s Florida park, Cosmo was shipped to the Mirage in 2010 and then SeaWorld San Diego in 2013, before being sent back across the country to Gulfarium in May 2014. We clamber up into the stands and watch the three dolphins dutifully perform the usual routine of tail walks, fluke presentations, and jumps. You can see rake marks on their skin, which the announcer says is the result of “dolphin communication” because “they don’t have hands!” The Gulf Of Mexico shimmers in the background, and a group of wild dolphins is cruising past just offshore. “Oh God, this makes me so sad,” Guidry mutters.

After the show, the crowd files out of the stands to wander around the rest of Gulfarium’s exhibits. Chopper, Sebastian, and Cosmo have nowhere to go so they glide around the small, featureless, pool, swimming circle after circle. After a while, some trainers show up and work with the dolphins for about ten minutes. Then they toss some balls into the pool and leave. Chopper gamely tries to amuse himself with a soccer ball, nosing it across the pool. After a few minutes he gives up and goes back to swimming his endless laps. Guidry is at least relieved to see that, despite her fears, Chopper and Sebastian seem to get on okay. She puts her face up against an underwater window and says, “Hi Buddy,” as he glides by. Chopper doesn’t really notice her, and keeps swimming. “This is super-depressing. I can’t look at this anymore,” Guidry says, and we walk away.

At a nearby waterside restaurant, Guidry is subdued and tries to sort through her emotions. “I really thought I was a good person who loved animals and was doing the right thing,” she says. “It never occurred to me that I was part of a huge problem, and that is a tough realization.” Acting on that realization, and walking away from a career, wasn’t easy either. But Guidry talks about her two boys and how she doesn’t feel like she would be able to tell them how to lead an ethical life if she didn’t feel that she had made ethical choices herself.

Guidry also feels indebted to Chopper, Sandy, and the other dolphins she grew to love, because she believes that getting to know them made her a better person, more thoughtful and empathetic. “I know animals like Sandy who make the best of it. She is still able to give of herself to the people who put her where she is,” she explains. “That’s an amazing resilience that I don’t even understand. Her strength makes me want to better myself.”

The hardest part is that to fight for Chopper and Sandy, Guidry had to leave them. She knows she is acting on what she learned from them, telling their stories, and determined to work for change, but they don’t know that. They are still living their captive lives at Gulf World and Gulfarium—performing, breeding, and bringing in tourist dollars—and all they know is that she is no longer there for them. That is something that haunts her. “I wish I could just tell them I am trying, trying to make something I know is wrong right,” she says.


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Tim Zimmermann is a Correspondent at Outside magazine, Associate Producer and Co-Writer of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, and author of The Race. He is a National Magazine Award finalist (for a 2005 Outside story about cave diving), and in recent years he has written and reported extensively on SeaWorld and marine mammal captivity. His work has also appeared in Men’s Journal, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, The Best American Sports Writing, and The Best American Science And Nature Writing. In a previous life he was a Senior Editor and Diplomatic Correspondent at US News & World Report. Tim lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D.C., where he cycles, sails, and struggles to find decent vegan food. He can be found on both Twitter and Facebook.

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Edited by Mike Dang. Fact-checked by Matthew Giles. Photos courtesy Ashley Guidry.