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The Dolphin Trainer Who Loved Dolphins Too Much

Tim Zimmermann | Longreads | April 15, 2015 | 6,193 words

Dolphin trainer Ashley Guidry loved her job and the animals she worked with—in particular, a dolphin calf named Chopper. But years of seeing how business was done behind the scenes at a small marine park made her come to the painful conclusion that she had to walk away from it all.

Posted inNonfiction, Story

The Dolphin Trainer Who Loved Dolphins Too Much

Dolphin trainer Ashley Guidry loved her job and the animals she worked with—in particular, a dolphin calf named Chopper. But years of seeing how business was done behind the scenes at a small marine park made her come to the painful conclusion that she had to walk away from it all.
Ashley Guidry with Sandy, a wild-caught bottlenose dolphin, at Gulf World.

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.

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