He once navigated into a bomb testing range to stop the government from igniting underwater explosives off the Florida Keys, staged a 34-day hunger strike to hasten the closing of a theme park and made it his life’s mission to end the “abusement” industry that mistreated his beloved dolphins.
Long before Blackfish ignited the animal rights movement and social media made protesting an armchair activity, Russ Rector was doing things the old-fashioned way. He had an eye for drama, a Rolodex full of reporters’ phone numbers and a profanity-laced zealotry that made both friend and foe cringe.
Rector, a longtime South Florida activist and former dolphin trainer, died Sunday at 69. His friend and advocate-in-arms, Rick Trout, said he slipped away doing what he always did: complaining.
“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,” Trout wrote on a Facebook post. “Russ leaves an unmatched legacy of marine mammal advocacy as solo founder of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation & Captivity Kills mantra.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Rector, who once declared to a reporter that he was a “lethal mother---,” was an uncompromising, untiring and sometimes boastfully unmoored agitator for marine mammal protections.
“When I come after you, it’s not for fun or exercise, it’s to get you gone,” he told the Herald in 2003.
His complaints about Ocean World, his former employer, helped close the old Broward County theme park in the early 1990s after he exposed violations. He repeated the strategy at the Miami Seaquarium a decade later, secretly filming crumbling concrete, exposed wires and corroded guardrails that led to nearly 80 building code violations and a partial shut-down of the park.
His harsh advocacy, which included calls to politicians or celebrities depending on his target, helped expose the mistreatment of dolphins and killer whales that likely pushed theme parks to more quickly embrace an eco-friendly narrative as they evolved from regional attractions to international destinations.
“Oh my gosh he was a thorn in my side, but even when he was a thorn you had to respect his passion,” said Billy Causey, the former superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and now a senior policy advisor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I always took his calls,” he said, “and I always knew it was going to be about an hour and I always knew it was going to be ugly.”
Rector was a brash defender of animals, but good luck to anyone who called him an animal activist. He could be just as ruthless in his criticism of animal rights groups as the marine park industry. He blistered PETA for trying to free Lolita rather than fight to improve conditions for the aging orca at the Seaquarium.
“She is just a casualty of captivity and the activists. She has become an icon that quite frankly, nothing has been done for her except a slogan: ‘Free Lolita, Free Lolita,’ ” Rector told the Herald in November. “I’m sure Lolita appreciates that.”
Originally from Fort Mills, S.C., Rector said he grew up watching Flipper. After moving with his parents to Dania in 1969, he took a job as an assistant on a dolphin show at Ocean World, feeding frozen fish to performing dolphins until 1975. Depending on whose account is being told, he either quit or was fired.
He spent the next years working odd jobs in Haiti and Florida that included a construction accident that left him partially blind, wearing a black eye patch and newly wealthy with a large legal settlement.
About 1990, he fell in with a band of former dolphin trainers working at the forefront of the free dolphin movement. The group included Trout, a former trainer at the Ocean Reef Club and Navy’s marine mammal program, and Ric O’Barry, Flipper’s former trainer and largely considered the founding father of the movement.
O’Barry, who went on to be featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, enlisted Rector’s help in trying to stop the U.S. Navy from exploding a bomb about 90 miles northwest of Key West that they feared would harm marine life, including wild dolphins. The day before the mission, O’Barry made it to the site with a TV crew and strapped himself to a bomb buoy, but was dragged back to Key West by the Coast Guard.
The next day, he flew back with Rector and a water scooter in a seaplane. With Rector steering the scooter and O’Barry holding on to his ankles, they headed out to the site, not realizing the bomb had already been detonated. This time they were blocked by Navy contractors. As the boats circled the scooter, O’Barry lost his grip, Rector collided with a contractor and O’Barry was hit by another boat. The two later sued the Navy, but a federal judge threw out the case, concluding their antics caused the accident.
“I can see now all the way down from Ruby Ridge to O.J. in this country that there is no justice,” Rector said at the time. “You only get as much justice in this country as you can afford.”
The response was classic Rector, a dramatic punchline that always pitted his David against Goliath.
Over the last decade or so, Rector, who lived with his wife of 47 years, Linda, in a duplex in Fort Lauderdale’s Croissant Park neighborhood, set his sites on the Seaquarium, fighting to have the orca’s tank enlarged.
“Keeping those animals in small concrete boxes and making them do stupid animal tricks makes them angry and dangerous,” he said in 1999 after an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando killed an intruder who had slipped onto the grounds and likely tried to go for a swim in the pool. After the orca killed a trainer in 2010, its third fatal attack, Rector, in his unsparing way, repeated his warning:
“I warned them this was going to happen,” he said. “Happy animals don’t kill their trainers.”
After news of his death began circulating, tributes filled Rector’s Facebook page from as far as California and Taiwan, from friends and fellow protesters remembering his acts of kindness — one recalled how after his wife was diagnosed with cancer, Rector helped explain the medication. Rector’s wife said he asked to be cremated and have his ashes scattered at sea. No services will be held. Donations, she said, may be sent to www.Animals24-7.org or the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society at http://www.seashepherd.org/.
“He was a curmudgeon that I loved,” Linda Rector told the Sun Sentinel. “He wasn’t everybody’s favorite person … he didn’t bow down. He was tenacious if he felt he was right, and that’s why he persevered so long.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich