Deena Hoagland stands looking out at the enclosed lagoon as Squirt, a late thirty-something bottlenose dolphin calls out, squeaking and clicking from a few feet away. Deena doesn’t notice, locked into something weighing on her thought process. Again, Squirt calls out before dropping under the surface and joining the other seven dolphins currently living within the facility.
“It was never my intention to acquire a family of dolphins. But after what they’ve done for me, and my family, and thousands of others, I feel responsible to do everything in my power to give them the best existence I can possibly give them, whatever that might consist of,” Deena gently explained.
Nearly 25 years have passed since the Hoagland family started here, and again, they find themselves within another moment of conflict that will have a significant impact on the lives of many. Many of who are human, and many may often seem human, however behind their layered personalities, they are incapable of making decisions for themselves. This family of eight bottlenose dolphins is dependent upon Deena, and the rest of the individuals within the organization, to make the best decisions on a daily basis to keep them healthy and alive. From the quality and quantity of their meticulously balanced diets, consisting of a variety of fish, including herring, cod, mackerel, squid, shrimp, a Jell-O mixture for hydration, and a concoction of medications and supplements, to the psychological demands required for successful behavior management and mental stimulation. A task that exists 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with the current record for the world’s oldest captive dolphin having lived 61 years.
“They will live far beyond my time. Dalai, (pronounced Dolly) our youngest will be five this year and as science evolves and we keep learning, it’s hard to predict how long they might stick around,” Deena explained. “Not sure how long I have left, which means I’ve got a lot to figure out as quickly as possible.”
Her late sixty-something introspective demeanor shifts into that of a sparkling child with an eager fascination, as she begins breaking down the history of the pod. From the leading ladies in their later thirties, Squirt and Sarah; the teenagers, Bella and Fiji; Lotus and Grace, the pre-teens; and Tashi and Dalai, the babies, each possessing their own distinctive stories with multifaceted personalities to match. Following the track back through the decades, her expression changed as she reached the top of the family tree.
Where it all began.
1987. Joe Hoagland was born.
Pete and Deena were living in Colorado with their four-year-old daughter Kate, when the new addition arrived and went directly into open-heart surgery. Joe had a rare congenital heart anomaly and his chances of survival were minimal. Despite countless unsavory opinions, Joe survived and at the age of three, during his third open-heart surgery suffered a complete right hemisphere stroke.
Doctors came in and basically told us he would never recover,” Pete Hoagland, Joe’s father explained. “Said he’d never walk, he’d probably never talk. Would probably need a wheelchair and constant care just to stay alive.”
Joe’s heart was compromised by the high altitude climate of Colorado, which motivated the family to relocate with no significant plan or direction. They needed to be at a lower altitude, where Joe would have a better chance of survival. Facing a rapidly increasing debt with ongoing hospital bills compounding daily, they searched from an affordable community that was not only located near advanced pediatric medical facilities, but also, as close to sea level as possible. Within a month, they found themselves settled in a developing seaside community of 11,336 people, an hour south of Miami. Full of uncertainty, the Hoagland family began the next chapter in the small town of Key Largo.
“We didn’t know anyone and for a while Pete and I barely saw each other,” Deena explained.
“I was given a job up in Homestead developing a fish farm,” Pete interjected. “Thirty minutes north. The days were pretty long.”
“They had to be. That was our sole source of income while I was trying to figure out what to do with Joe.” Deena added.
Weeks passed in Key Largo, as did the ongoing failed visits to numerous rehabilitation centers and specialists throughout South Florida.
“He didn’t want to grab a cotton ball from a bowl just because a therapist told him to.” Deena expressed with a spirited intensity. “It was hard to move (after the stroke). It was frustrating for him. Ask a kid who has his mobility taken away to grab an M&M or a piece of chocolate! Something he wants to work for, not a cotton ball!”
She didn’t have the answer, but she knew that whatever it was that would motivate her son to recover, it had to be fun. It had to be something significant enough to motivate a level of enthusiasm that would overcome the cloud that was weighing him down. Relentlessly pushing Joe in all directions and exposing him to all sorts of circumstances eventually led to a simple conclusion. Animals. He responded to animals. First dogs and cats, then guinea pigs and fish and iguanas, until finally…
In the late 1980s the dolphin industry was booming and the Florida Keys was the mecca of dolphin swim programs. The social consciousness surrounding marine mammals, and the negative connotations that accompany the act of removing marine mammals from the ocean for public entertainment was not yet intact. There were no animal rights activists picketing to ban Sea World and the idea of releasing Keiko, the Free Willy whale was still a few years away. There was only fascination and an innate magnetism stimulated by the idea that you could actually see a dolphin up close. The concept of touching one or swimming with one was beyond comprehension and a childhood dream for anyone growing up watching Flipper and Shamu.
Joe’s silence was becoming exceedingly common as his depression grounded itself further. Without the slightest idea of what was approaching, the relentless determination of a mother in fear of failure led them to what would become the defining circumstance for the rest of their lives.
Deena removed Joe from his jerry-rigged car seat, necessary to keep him propped up vertically, as he lacked the capacity to hold himself upright. With a nervous trepidation, Deena carried her son towards a weathered palapa hut where a kind hearted, fifty-something man named Lloyd Borguss awaited her arrival. Lloyd was the founder of a small facility located along the canals of Key Largo, consisting of a small lagoon created by a chain link fence. The lagoon served as a newfound home to a small family bottlenose dolphins and one of the first dolphin swim programs throughout the Florida Keys.
Seeing Joe’s condition, Lloyd had no option but to open his heart along with his facility to the pushy young mother, determined to bring life back to her son. Escorting the young pair down the ramp and onto the dock, Deena’s demeanor changed as she noticed Joe’s eyes widen. His head tilted as he noticed the dolphins pushing magically through the water along the edges of the lagoon. Deena’s breathing spiked as did her heartbeat, witnessing her son shift for the first time in weeks. Kneeling at the edge of the dock, Lloyd signaled, inviting Deena to sit at the water’s edge. Her eyes now wider than Joe’s, she took a seat on the edge of the dock, propping Joe up on her lap, facing the dolphins. And just as Lloyd began his informational introduction, without warning, up popped a dolphin just inches from Joe’s face, letting out a series of joyous clicks and squeaks. Deena’s eyes welled up as for the first time in over a month, Joe giggled.
“That’s Fonzie.” Lloyd expressed with an equally exasperated giggle.
Something that couldn’t be delivered by any amount of degrees, or specialists, or high priced experts, was handed over effortlessly by an unsuspecting, random bottlenose dolphin. And the rest was history. Joe and Fonzie would become the best of friends, spending nearly every day together for the next period of years.
Using Joe’s enthusiasm to spend time with his new friend, Deena began inventing circumstances to convert his excitement into healing.
“I explained that Fonzie really wanted to play with him, but that he was a left handed dolphin.” Deena explained. “And that it was difficult for him to take a fish from his right hand.”
She found Joe in his bedroom that night alone, speaking to his hand, repeating the words open… close… open… close.
“Joe would try his hardest to do everything for Fonzie, Deena said. “The more he was with Fonzie, the better he got.”
And it was through tactics like this that over the next year and a half would lead Joe to a complete recovery. Before his fifth birthday, he had returned to a state of complete mobility, sliding in and out of the water without assistance, and handling himself in the water as if he were a member of the dolphin family.
“I wanted to be.” The now thirty-one year old Joe Hoagland exclaimed. “I was more comfortable in the water than anywhere else. In the water, it was easy. It was being on land that was the challenge.”
A challenge that he would overcome.
The results Joe and Fonzie achieved would go on to serve an even greater purpose. Their success would lead to the creation of Island Dolphin Care, a 501c3 nonprofit organization founded in 1997 by the Hoagland family. Deena’s background as a social worker and cognitive therapist combined with the methods used with Joe, would serve as the framework for a dolphin-assisted therapy program for children with special needs. With five hundred dollars and a high tech fax machine, the next stage of life was underway.
Four years later, Deena would find herself within the newly constructed IDC building, perched upon it’s own lagoon, which served as the home to four bottlenose dolphins acquired from Dolphins Plus, one of them being Fonzie. The approach was working and over the next two decades, the program would evolve to help thousands of children from all over the world, facing all kinds of challenges, with more than 50% covered by scholarships supported by grants and ongoing fundraising efforts. A program for veterans facing PTSD was added, as well as, an array of educational marine science and conservation courses. And as the organization has grown, so has their family of dolphins, which now consists of eight.
The financial demands have increased significantly, yet somehow IDC has avoided raising prices since it’s inception.
“This is not a money making venture. It was never intended to be and it never will be. We’re not a theme park and we don’t sell dolphin swims to the public,” Pete Hoagland, who serves as the director of operations explains. “ People can pay to take a tour and learn about our programs, and we offer a few educational interactive programs with the dolphins, but it’s primarily fundraising that supports what we do here.”
Time has passed and social consciousness has evolved. The concept of dolphins and whales in captivity is no longer globally accepted and sentiment has changed. In 2013, the documentary Blackfish was released, surrounding the death of a Sea World trainer killed by a whale named Tilikum. The film stimulated a global movement that has led to numerous countries banning the practice of cetaceans living in captive environments. In the U.S., the movement has influenced Sea World to discontinue their breeding practices, while restructuring their entire public personification as the theme park giant was rapidly approaching the possibility of bankruptcy. While the sentiment is well-intentioned, the solutions are absent as the act of complaining seems to far outweigh the act of thinking. Those animals currently living under the care of humans have little chance of survival were they to be released into the wild, much like the release of a domesticated dog into the Alaskan wilderness wouldn’t have significant odds of survival.
The ethical considerations surrounding the dolphins of IDC is a primary focal point within the organization. They have a strict no breeding policy and have announced that this will be the final generation. Knowing that some of them will likely last longer than she will, Deena faces an entirely new layer of conflict.
“I’m getting older. And I need to find a solution that solidifies their future,” Deena explains earnestly. “They deserve the best possible life, whatever that may be. I don’t know the answer, but I need to find it soon. After everything they’ve done for so many families… for my family… I won’t let them down. I can’t.”
Deena at Island Dolphin Care
Facing the challenges of keeping the organization running is a full time job for a staff of over twenty employees and volunteers. The challenge of keeping the organization funded is a responsibility that falls primarily upon the woman who started it all. This, on top of the added responsibility of finding an ethical, sustainable solution for the future of this dolphin family weighs heavily on her shoulders. As she explains the layers surrounding what lies ahead, the consideration of each aspect, her focus hones in as she takes a long look at the pod frolicking in the lagoon. Being days away from her birthday has heightened the awareness of her mortality, increasing the significance of her current challenges.
“I had no idea Joe would live to be thirty. He wasn’t supposed to survive at all. But he did. And I had no idea it would be a dolphin that helped him get there. But that’s what happened. And somehow, at some point in the not so distant future, I will be saying a similar thing about this.” Deena shrugs, lightening up, “Has to be pretty soon. I’m getting too old for this.”
She laughs and returns to the childish state from earlier, while adamantly avoiding revealing the age she’s days away from approaching.