Whenever real-life animals pop up in a movie or TV show, it sure looks like they’re having the time of their lives. After all, they’re hamming it up right alongside professional human actors, creating heartfelt moments and big laughs. But at the end of the day, only the people go home to their warm beds and loving families.
This talented animal was the face of a beloved ’60s TV series. Tragically, nobody knew just how much she was suffering until it looked to be too late. Her closest friend and admirer, however, refused to let the pain continue.
Ric O’Barry loved dolphins, always had. His passion ran so deep that he dedicated his entire career to these majestic creatures. Still, at certain moments, Ric had to ask himself: was he doing more harm than good?
But Ric experienced very little doubt in his younger days. He thrived as a trainer at the Miami Seaquarium, where he cared for various aquatic animals and taught them to do tricks. Even as a seasoned pro, Ric found himself continually surprised.
He realized that dolphins were so incredibly intelligent. Capable of feeling empathy, solving problems, and teaching each other, they seemed almost as complex as humans. Ric happily lived and worked alongside them, until a surprise phone call came his way.
Two of the filmmakers behind The Creature from the Black Lagoon spoke on the other end of the line. They had a new family friendly project that was right up Ric’s alley. The trainer agreed, unaware he was in for a horror show like no other.
That conversation established Ric as the lead trainer on the TV series Flipper. The show followed the Parks family and their pet dolphin, who together protected the local marine preserve and stopped crime. Though kind of silly, Ric saw it as a huge opportunity.
With his behind-the-scenes guidance — and a handful of onscreen appearances — Ric helped make Flipper a smashing success. The press and money certainly were nice, but the greatest reward for Ric was the bond he formed with the show’s dolphin actors.
Flickr / Retro Dump
Working with the same dolphins every day and teaching them complex maneuvers like the “tail walk,” Ric couldn’t help but feel proud. Still, he did have one favorite. Kathy, one of the main Flipper portrayers, had a personality that Ric couldn’t get enough of.
The two connected on such a profound level that Ric chose to keep working with Kathy after Flipper ended its TV run. They returned to a marine park, but this time it wasn’t the paradise that Ric remembered.
Forced to perform daily and live in an isolated tank, Kathy started acting sad and withdrawn. Ric naturally tried his best to cheer her up — it was probably just a phase. One day, however, Kathy swam to the bottom of her tank and never resurfaced.
The dolphin drowned — and Ric could only figure that she did so on purpose. He witnessed firsthand Kathy’s misery about being cooped up and made to perform. As much as he wanted to ignore the truth, Ric realized he couldn’t train dolphins any longer.
Though he couldn’t bring Kathy back, Ric knew he could still do a world of good for other sea mammals. In her memory, he founded the Dolphin Project. Ric and like-minded individuals banded together to end the abuse of captive porpoises.
The Dolphin Project started out small. Just a single seaside tent served as their re-adaptation center, where they could gradually put dolphins back into the wild. But the more Ric learned about the seafaring industry, the more fearful he became.
In the United States, most dolphins are caught specifically for entertainment purposes. They’ll reside in aquariums or be groomed to perform in parks or movies. But in other countries, dolphins’ prospects are far bleaker.
Asia’s coastal regions, particularly around Japan, see a massive amount of dolphin fishing. An array of vicious tools round up the mammals by the thousands. Prize specimens are shipped off for training, while the rest are slaughtered for their meat and teeth.
Fortunately, Ric’s resolve steeled him against these atrocities. He and his colleagues ramped up their efforts, both educating the world about the maltreatment of dolphins and freeing captured animals — often at great risk to himself.
Ric’s efforts to liberate captured marine life and deter fishing have gotten him arrested and fined multiple times. Nothing would stop him, of course. Even so, Ric wondered if he could kickstart change on a larger scale than freeing one dolphin at a time.
Well, it just so happened that his son Lincoln was an experienced filmmaker. The two of them decided to team up and show the world just how abominable captive dolphin’s lives were.
The father and son traveled all over the planet, documenting dolphin abuse and organizing protests against the companies responsible. Their work produced a documentary film titled The Cove, as well as a docu-series called Blood Dolphin$.
The footage rippled out and made a big splash with the film community. The Cove won Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Oscars, exceeding Ric’s wildest expectations. Despite the major victory, he knew his work wasn’t yet complete.
Even as he approached 80, Ric swore he’d never give up the fight. He reflected, “If people could see them in the wild, they’d never buy a ticket to a dolphin show.” It was a gift, really, to see the true potential of these animals. Only a few others shared Ric’s insight.
Gilberto ‘Chito’ Shedden certainly shared Ric’s feelings, albeit with a different focus. He was a pretty typical farmer and fisherman in Siqquires, Costa Rica. He did have a flair for showmanship, however, which led him to give tours of the province.
In 1989, Chito was strolling along the banks of the scenic Reventazón River. It was a peaceful day, but little did he realize that danger was lurking nearby.
He locked eyes with a fully-grown male crocodile, a fierce hunter with an iron jaw who wouldn’t shirk from going after humans from time to time. Was Chito the featured special on today’s menu?
Strangely, the croc didn’t move an inch. Chito overcame his initial dread and inspected the beast. On top of being fairly underweight, it was suffering from a serious head injury.
It appeared that someone shot the reptile in the head and left it for dead. It was most likely a cattle rancher trying to defend his herd from predators.
The crocodile didn’t appear the least bit hostile. Out of compassion, Chito loaded it into his boat and brought him home. His family wasn’t exactly thrilled, of course.
But Chito was determined to earn this beast’s trust. Whenever he got a chance, he went out to feed it fish and chicken, while also trying to get it used to petting and human contact.
Before too long, the crocodile became completely healthy and docile. Chito named it Pocho, after the Costa Rican term for ‘strong.’ They were practically inseparable.
He even managed to get his wife and daughter to warm up to Pocho by sticking his arms inside its mouth. It would be crazy to do with any other crocodile, but Pocho wouldn’t hurt a fly.
How was this possible? A nature photographer who met Pocho theorized that the head wound damaged the part of his brain that makes crocodiles aggressive toward other animals.
As Chito continued to train Pocho, word got out about the fisherman with the friendly pet crocodile. More and more people wanted to see it, but Chito was afraid of getting in trouble with the law.
Chito did the responsible thing and obtained a permit from the police to become Pocho’s legal guardian. That had to be the most interesting paperwork the office filled out that day!
Flickr / Doug Morris
Now that all the pieces were in place, Chito announced that he and Pocho were going to put on a show like no other. A large crowd gathered along the riverbank on the big day.
Diving right into the water with his scaly friend, Chito cycled through an amazing array of stunts. He swam circles around the croc, stuck his head underneath its legs, and even opened up its mouth for a peek inside.
The crowd went wild. Pocho and Chito were a sensation, and they even went on to star in their own documentary, ‘The Man Who Swims With Crocodiles.’
For 20 years, crowds from all over the globe came to watch Pocho and Chito perform. They always gasped when they saw Pocho’s size, but the beast never once harmed Chito.
Besides gaining local fame, Pocho became a true member of the Shedden family. Though Chito’s wife did get pretty mad when he admitted that he might love Pocho more than her!
YouTube / National Geographic
Even when there was no show happening, Chito would spend as much time as possible with the crocodile. There was nothing he enjoyed more than swimming and cuddling with his unusual pet.
Sadly, Pocho died of natural causes in 2011. When Chito held an elaborate funeral to honor his one-of-a-kind companion, throngs of fans and admirers turned up to pay their respects.
But Chito can always be proud of how far he came with Pocho, and what they accomplished together. Where the world saw a monster, he discovered a true friend.