Mandy Rodriguez of the Dolphin Research Center is sincerely excited about every facet of life — dolphins, certainly, plus the changes to the Grassy Key institution, current events, children, and the simple pleasure of resting under a shade tree and hearing birdsong. He is the patriarch of the Dolphin Research Center, but also a passel of children and multiple families of dolphins.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he repeats again and again. And, “My life is the story of the American Dream.”
Mandy Rodriguez came to the United States at the age of 10, landing in Spanish Harlem. At 20, he enlisted in the Marines and spent 10 months in Vietnam. “I saw the most horrific things … but I also met incredible friends, my brothers,” he said. When he returned to the U.S., he got a job as a low-level dolphin trainer at Miami’s Seaquarium. Knowing there had to be a different way to learn and interact with the powerful animals, something less “circus-y,” he sought an education at the New England Aquarium. In 1984, he moved to the Keys where the Flipper Sea School became the Dolphin Research Center under the guidance of Rodriguez, and his late wife Jayne.
The facility’s mission hasn’t changed much since it’s beginning. The goal is to treat dolphins with respect, give them forever homes and teach about the animals while learning from them. Dolphins aren’t “magic,” Mandy says, but they have a unique ability to accept humans which often ignites a healing process.
1. Approximately how many kids have you raised, not counting dolphins? I have been lucky enough to play a part in raising nine children.
2. You and your wife Della are raising your three grandchildren. How is it different on the second go around? First of all, I’m the luckiest man ever to have such a wonderful wife, best friend and partner. Without her I wouldn’t be able to accomplish this. As a young parent you are not prepared. You think
you are … but babies don’t come with instructions, so you start making it up as you go along. The second time around, you have a better idea how it all works, and you may be able to predict and avoid some of the problems that arise. I say to them, ‘When you’re done with your tantrum, I’ll be over there.’ I realized that raising kids is not a democracy, I’m in charge.
3. If you were not training dolphins what would you be doing instead? I’ve always wanted to be a cartoonist or something to do with art.
4. How old are you? I will be 67 in a few months.
5. Who is your favorite dolphin? I guess like all parents would say, who ever needs me most at the moment. But I do have a favorite, his name was Natua.
6. You left Cuba at a young age. What parts of the Cuban culture are still a part of your life today? I’m proud to say that I’m Cuban-American. Although born in Cuba, I was raised in the USA, but it’s my cooking where my Cuban culture stands out.
7. Describe the most amazing moment, in your opinion, at DRC. Every day. I don’t take a single moment for granted at DRC.
8. What have dolphins taught you? Dolphins saved me from becoming a statistic. I came out of Vietnam with PTSD. In 1969 we didn’t know a thing about this horrible illness. If dolphins wouldn’t have accepted me, I seriously don’t know were I would be today.
9. Why did your family come to the United States? My family fled Cuba in 1959 because of Fidel Castro and his band of &%$#@*&.
10. Your name is Armando, but you go by ‘Mandy.’ Is this why you wear a mustache? People that don’t know me and hear the name Mandy are extremely surprised when a 6-foot, 230-pound man shows up. It’s kind of fun to see their reaction.
11. Do people sometimes call you Tom Selleck?
12. There’s a new movie being released this summer called ‘Good Fish.’ Who plays Mandy Rodriguez? Tom Selleck.
13. Coca-Cola, coffee or champagne? I’m a good Cuban and drink my Bustelo, but champagne is my drink.
14. Name something your kids do that’s guaranteed to drive you up the wall. Not listening.
15. Name something your kids do that’s guaranteed to melt your heart. Just about everything else … kids are an amazing.
FINISH THESE SENTENCES ….
16. When I grow up I want to … work with dolphins.
17. When I was a kid I … was a terror.
18. The best advice my dad ever gave me was … if you want to be successful in life. put smart people around you.
19. I keep telling my kids … make good choices and good things will happen.
20. My kids have taught me … love, patience and how to be a kid again.