Hi Jax! I am Oliver Bovello, Canine Community Reporter for The Dog Connection TV Network.
My granny is a member of the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida, where you live. We read about visits to DRC from the Wounded Warrior Project veterans. Thanks for taking time to answer some questions.
Q: Most of us know about service dogs for veterans, but how and why were dolphins chosen to interact with the Wounded Warriors?
A: Hi, Oliver. It’s nice to meet you. First of all, thank you for supporting Dolphin Research Center. My friends here and I appreciate it! I’ve lived here since 2008 but I’ve been told that our connection to helping veterans goes back much further. Our co-founder, my friend Mandy Rodriguez served in the Marine Corps and was deployed in Vietnam. When he returned, he brought with him some of the bad effects that war can have on military personnel and began working with dolphins. He learned that we accept people, despite differences or injuries. Mandy says that working and becoming friends with dolphins helped him. So, in the years after he and his wife Jayne founded Dolphin Research Center, it’s no surprise that he’d be interested in helping other veterans.
In 1999, Mandy, DRC’s Director of Special Needs Joan Mehew and a veterans’ group in Key West put together a special program for vets with PTSD and other issues that took place here at DRC. Those men benefited from interacting with the dolphins here and working together on projects.
A few years ago, when the Wounded Warrior Project was planning one of their Soldier Ride cycling events through the Keys, they connected with us about having the participants experience a Dolphin Encounter swim. DRC was happy to make that happen. I think everyone involved has seen the special things that happen when veterans, many of whom are recovering from dramatic physical injuries and other challenges, are able to overcome them and join my friends and me in the lagoons for a fun-filled experience.
Because of the success of the Soldier Ride experiences here, we’ve been asked to work with Wounded Warrior Project on other programs they provide.
Q: Your early life was traumatic before being adopted by DRC. Please tell us your story. How did your experiences help you to connect with the veterans?
A: I was just a kid, younger than one year old, when I got separated from my mother and our group in the Jacksonville area. I was attacked by a shark and seriously injured. For days I swam around the St. John’s River, all alone, at an age when I still needed my mother. Luckily, people on shore spotted me and alerted the government agency that oversees dolphins in the wild. I was rescued and rehabilitated at a place called Gulf World in Panama City, FL. Because I was so young, I hadn’t had time to learn the skills I needed to survive on my own and there was no guarantee that I would find a dolphin family to join. So, the government deemed me non-releasable. Dolphin Research Center offered me a permanent home!
We find that the veterans really relate to me on various levels. Because of the shark attack, my dorsal fin, one of my pectoral flippers, and part of my tail flukes are scarred and sort of deformed. I have scars on my body. Even though my healed wounds are obvious and my appearance is different, this never bothered the other dolphins here. They accepted me with open flippers!
My healed injuries also don’t get in the way of me leading a healthy, active, life. I can swim, jump, and play just like every other dolphin. When veterans are dealing with their recovery from tough injuries – often multiple amputations even – and they see me in action, I think it maybe it’s a positive picture for them to hold on to. At least, I hope meeting me is helpful.
Q: What programs of the Wounded Warrior Project involve DRC? (i.e. Soldier Ride, Project Odyssey, and Military Dolfriend) ?
A: Each year, the Soldier Ride stops at Dolphin Research Center so the participants can enjoy a Dolphin Encounter. A couple of years ago, Wounded Warrior Project asked us to work with them in their Project Odyssey retreats, too. WWP explains that “Project Odyssey helps you overcome combat stress through outdoor, rehabilitative retreats that encourage a connection with nature, your peers, Project Odyssey staff, and trained counselors”. We also work with WWP on a program for caregivers and the families of the fallen.
By the way, the veterans who visit during Soldier Ride and Project Odyssey all receive a silver charm that is a replica of my tail fluke. It means a lot that they carry that with them as a reminder of overcoming injury and adversity.
For Military Dolfriend, DRC works in partnership with the Fleet and Family Support Center at the Naval Air Station in Key West. Service members and their families experiencing pre, post, or current deployment issues to Iraq and Afghanistan come to the facility and enjoy dolphin time as our guests.
Q: Please describe a dolphin encounter/swim for special needs persons:
A: Dolphin Encounter for someone with special needs really isn’t any different than for a person who doesn’t have a special need! However, if someone needs assistance – either on the dock or in the water – we provide that help. For example, if someone has difficulty stepping down to the floating dock and then getting into the water, they can use the Aqualift chair to enter the lagoon. If a person needs a buddy to help them with some of the activities or behaviors shared with the dolphins, our staff can be right there with them to make sure that they fully participate in the swim and have a great time. Our staff is trained in providing this assistance and we offer the help at no extra charge.
Q: Please share a story of a special bond you made with a veteran:
A: Gosh, I’ve been lucky to meet so many remarkable men and women who served our nation in the military. Of course, my first special bond with a veteran was formed with Mandy. When I was transported from Panama City to the Florida Keys by marine mammal ambulance, I was in water in a box custom-built for me and on a foam pad. Mandy traveled in that box with me for pretty much the whole 13 hours! He held me, talked to me, and reassured me so that I wouldn’t be stressed out by the trip. He understood that even a positive transition can be intimidating at first and he helped me get through it. We’ve been good friends ever since.
Then there’s Josh, whom I met when he swam with me during one Soldier Ride. He lost the lower part of one of his legs in an explosion during his deployment overseas and was using a prosthetic leg during the Dolphin Encounter. Josh is a strong, determined guy. When someone asked him about me after his swim he said, “Jax is cool. He’s an amputee like me but it doesn’t bother him and I’m not going to let it bother me.” You have to admire that spirit! Since that time, Josh has returned to active duty and is even jumping out of airplanes!
Q. Thank you so much, Jax. Tell us how the general public can access DRC programs and your wonderful facility. My family frequently visits and supports the dolphins and sea lions. Hope to see you soon! Keep up the good work!
A: That’s easy! Dolphin Research Center has a great website – www.dolphins.org – that has all the information anyone needs about our center, our mission, our programs, and everything else. You can also “Like” our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DolphinResearchCenter.
Oliver, thanks again for being a DRC supporter. Hope to see you on your next visit!