Las Vegas Sun

July 25, 2014

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LIVING LAS VEGAS:

Dolphin training can’t help but bring out the kid in you

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Christopher DeVargas

Erin Ryan spends time as a “trainer for a day” at the Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage in September.

Dolphin trainer for a day

Erin Ryan spends time as a Launch slideshow »

I dreamed of this moment. Forever. And all I can think about is Miley Cyrus asking how to “get a dolphin” for her swimming pool. I want so desperately not to be that girl, but I can’t deny the thrill of this — the startling black eyes, the lissome bulk, the conical teeth in the smiling jaw like perfect, dangerous pearls. Now that I’m so close to the real thing, fear tugs at my Flipper fantasy. He’s huge.

“Go for it,” says Erica Kiewice. She’s a dolphin care specialist at the Mirage with Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat and its Trainer for a Day program. I’m a substitute teacher in a wetsuit. My student is Maverick, an 8-year-old born right here in Las Vegas.

His captivity, no matter what the conditions, is a controversial issue that teeters in popular culture between heartwarming family blockbusters and gritty documentaries, theme parks and research zoos. Especially for animal lovers, it’s a minefield. But here in this manufactured oasis, the natives don’t appear restless. The “bachelor” pod’s three young males are playful and talkative, social with each other and the tiny band of people who’ve crossed the concrete wall into their world. Their chatter is musical, and lines from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” run through my head: “Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending destruction of the planet Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind of the danger; but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits ...”

Cold presses tight on my hips as I slip into the tank, carefully treading water. My fingertips brush Maverick’s skin, which feels like wet rubber under silk. It sloughs and regenerates nine times faster than mine and has microscopic ridges that hug water molecules, allowing Maverick to slice through them like a blade. Kiewice tells me to extend my open hand, and he rests his rostrum, or beak, there.

“Now, give him a kiss,” she says. First, I give him a moment, silently asking permission to invade his space. He lets me, tolerates me. Dolphins are painted as friends to humans, and I can hear the affection in Kiewice’s voice when she talks to Maverick. But dolphin care curator Philip Admire pokes a necessary hole in my sparkly bubble of surfer mythology and grinning dolphin posters.

“These dolphins are not family pets. They are wild animals and need to be treated with respect.”

Admire got his start wearing polyester pants and selling Shamu dolls at SeaWorld, where a biology degree and grit propelled him into marine mammal care. He has worked in animal rescue and helped launch marine parks in other countries, though one of his favorite memories is from the early days, covered in baby sea lion poop and chatting with Mick Jagger about the business of bringing nature to the public.

“Facilities like this are important so people can learn about these animals. Our guests can have an understanding and appreciation they could not gain from watching TV,” Admire says, adding that the Mirage is accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an international association dedicated to the highest standards of care and to conservation in the wild. Trainer for a Day is a popular attraction, but the specialists also collect reproductive data for university studies and offer extensive educational opportunities for local students who, like me, dream of looking dolphins in the eye. “Dolphins are highly intelligent,” Admire says, “and you do get a connection with them.”

I suspect that Maverick’s connection with me has something to do with fish snacks. Using them as positive reinforcement, I work through “interactions” that condition him to accept hydration, routine health examinations and contact with substitute teachers. Today that means me, Raquel and Ryan O’Neill and Kerry Murphy.

“I’ve read a lot about them and think they’re very sensitive and intelligent. I’ve always wanted to be up close and personal with one,” Raquel says. Trainer for a Day delivers, but as soon as the specialists feel the animals are ready to finish an interaction, it stops. And the dolphins never perform in choreographed shows. “You’re getting a snapshot of their lives,” Admire says.

My snapshot includes shaking fins with Lightning, the alpha male, and observing the mature females and their calves at play. Two of the youngsters are brand-new, already more agile at a few weeks old than I will ever be. Kiewice says they will be the ones to initiate contact, to trust.

I let go of the wall and swim into the deep. Kiewice’s hand speaks. Maverick disappears. I see the silver streak of him, dorsal fin about to surface. My fingers close around it, and I am flying inside a wave. Goose bumps rise. I laugh out loud. And I hope, somehow, that he can feel my joy.

A version of this story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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