Grassy Key is the home of the Dolphin Research Center, a serious-minded scientific facility dedicated to the understanding and preservation, education and public awareness of the most intelligent animal in the world, the dolphin. I mean, look at us humans for a moment. Agreed?
This is how serious-minded and scientific the place is. 1960s American television presented a show called Flipper. Flipper was a dolphin played by an actor named Mitzie, who was also a dolphin. Flipper was kind of an all purpose hero animal, rescuing kids, heading off bandits, engaging in antics, and generally saving the day. Y’know, kind of like a fish Lassie, except dolphins aren’t fish.
Full disclosure. I never saw the television show Flipper, so this quote comes from somebody else: Flipper was, “…the dolphin who nudged wayward boats to safety, knocked guns out of poachers’ hands with well-timed leaps, and warned Bud and Sandy whenever danger lurked….”
Flipper was occasionally referred to as an emotional companion animal for Bud and Sandy’s family, the Ricks.
Speaking of companion animals, quite by chance on the very same day we visited Mitzie’s grave, a peacock made the news. Calling the bird her “emotional support animal,” a passenger attempted to board her peacock on a cross-country airplane flight. No go, said the airline, and a new discussion was hatched as the national debate escalated; Just what, exactly, is an acceptable companion emotional support animal?
Automatically, when thinking about ESAs, most folks will think of dogs. But you can also get a boost from your cat, your pig and even your miniature horse. Mice, rabbits, birds, snakes, hedgehogs, rats and ferrets have also been known to bolster the mood and confidence of people with psychological or emotional disabilities (which, when you think about it, could include all of us.)
This is the first documented case of trying to recruit a peacock. This was not a good choice.
The Dolphin Research Center was originally named the Santini Porpoise School and this is where Milton and Virginia Santini trained Mitzie and where she learned to be so groovy and heroic and where much of the television show was filmed.
In fairness to truth, Flipper was played by Mitzie and several other dolphins too: Little Bit, Mr Gipper, Susie, Kathy, Patty, Scotty and Squirt. Because none of these could do it, a dolphin named Clown was sometimes brought in for the tail walking stunts, to the delight of all those tail walker fans.
In 1972, at the age of 14, Mitzie died of a heart attack. She is currently entombed beneath the statue of a dolphin on the grounds of the DRC. Don’t be misled by the 30-foot tall concrete statue of a mother and baby dolphin in the front yard. That ain’t it; Mitzie is under a different statue, inside the compound. Underground.
Our presenter at DRC grew up in Nebraska. Eight years ago she came to Florida to see a space launch. As it sometimes happens, the launch date changed. Missing that event, she decided to see what might be going on with the dolphins, so she visited the research center. She never left.
Sometimes when I visit my mother who lives in Florida, we might go out to dinner at a seafood restaurant. She diligently reads the menu and happens upon an item called “dolphin.” “Dolphin?” she proclaims in her Brooklyn accent, putting her hand on her chest, “I couldn’t eat this. I feel like I would be eating Flippah.”
She would be pleased to know that the dolphin listed on restaurant menus is the dolphin fish, also known as mahi mahi or dorado. It is cold-blooded, has scales, gills and lays eggs. The dolphin we are familiar with, Flippah for example, is a warm blooded, air breathing mammal that gives birth to and nurses its young. It is also born with a mustache which falls out shortly after birth. Very much not the same. Mom says, “I’ll have the pork chop.”