Rescued dolphins Louie, left, and Jax made their way to their forever home at DRC after an oil spill and bull shark bite, respectively.

By Allie Proskovec

As we prepare to celebrate our 40th anniversary at Dolphin Research Center, a look back seems appropriate. Over the last 20 years we have accomplished and experienced so many different things, and Keys Weekly has been there to celebrate and cover every step of the way right along with us. 

For starters, with the incredible support from our members and donors, we have certainly expanded our footprint over the years in order to best serve our animal family, staff and guests. One of the most recent structures we have added is the Jayne Shannon-Rodriguez and Mandy Rodriguez Welcome Center. This addition not only welcomes our guests with a beautiful and accessible building, but it also provides a Category 5 hurricane-rated building to safely house the animal care team during a storm. The Sanger Family Education Center is another impactful resource used to support our mission by housing the education team, library and classrooms utilized by all of our various camps and educational programs for children, teens and adults. 

DRC was co-founded by Jayne and Mandy Rodriguez with the idea of educating and inspiring people for the benefit of marine mammals and the environment we share. Their core ideal of creating strong relationships between marine mammals and people, based on trust and respect, remains strong today. The Dolphin Research Center Training Institute (DRCTI) was established in 2012 in response to the limited availability of professional educational programs that prepare individuals for careers regarding the behavior, care and training of marine mammals. In addition, in January 2018, DRC Training Institute launched the Professional Animal Trainer program, a continuing education program for current trainers and handlers. Education remains at the core of Dolphin Research Center’s mission. 

Research also remains an integral part of our mission. In 2013, we began participating in a field research project we often refer to internally as the Wild Dolphin Study. This study will establish a cohesive estimation of the distribution, residency and movement patterns for bottlenose dolphins in the Middle Keys that will enhance our understanding of the populations in the entire region. With more than 100 surveys under the belts of our research team, they have made huge strides and contributions to this vital study. 

We witness truly inspirational moments between man and animal every day. Many of these incredible moments through the years have occurred as a result of our close relationship with Wounded Warrior Project and the various experiences we are able to offer our nation’s soldiers and veterans. 

A few of our most testing times were brought to us by Mother Nature herself. Both Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Hurricane Irma in 2017 presented challenges and obstacles to overcome.

Thankfully, along with life’s trials, come life’s joys. 

We have been lucky enough to provide a forever home to many rescued animals throughout the years including four rescued dolphins – Jax, Louie, Ranger and Summer – a sea lion named Lina, a blue and gold macaw name Calypso and two african spurred tortoises, Ziggy and Speedy. DRC’s strong history of rescue is made possible by generous donations from those who understand the importance of caring for our environment and the animals that inhabit it. Dolphin Research Center is the only state and federal government-authorized manatee rescue team in the Florida Keys. The dedicated team has rescued countless manatees over the last four decades. Dually, a locally known manatee, was rescued for the 13th time in April of this year. Thank you to everyone who makes these efforts possible. 

This all brings us to a few of our most recent milestones leading us into our 40th year. This year will be the inaugural class of the Dolphin Academy educational program. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Bristol, the “Anthropogenic noise impairs cooperation in bottlenose dolphins” study was published. Along with an additional published study showing “Trainer interaction can improve welfare outcomes of toy enrichment for isolated animals.” Last but certainly not least, our “baby” dolphins Bowie and Morada turn one year old, and our matriarch Tursi will turn 50 in November. 

Dolphin Research Center continues to grow and thrive by virtue of a strong and expert team of leadership. With the experience of DRC’s past and a clear vision of the future, nurturing sincere friendships with the marine mammals in our care, the relationship and sense of partnership between marine mammals and people will remain a treasured part of the equation.

Allie Proskovec is the Director of Media and Marketing for Dolphin Research Center.