Book Review: The Perfect Pair, Book I: The Enchanted Mirror.
David C. Holroyd and Tracy J. Holroyd. 2012, Matador Press.
Reviewed by Malcolm J. Brenner
Being a dolphin trainer looks like a glamorous job, as Ric O’Barry could tell you. He trained dolphins for the mid-1960’s TV show Flipper, which was dubbed into dozens of languages and became a world-wide hit. Rightly or wrongly, O’Barry now blames himself for the current plague of dolphin exploitation, including the proliferation of swim-with-dolphin facilities and oceanariums that are pillaging wild populations.
In reality, dolphin-training is a difficult, demanding, often-dangerous job that is guaranteed to break your heart. The “why” becomes obvious in The Enchanted Mirror, the first book in a trilogy chronicling the career of one “David Capello,” the stage name of a dolphin trainer who worked for an unnamed entertainment company in 1970’s England.
Is the book fiction or a memoir? I’m not quite clear. The foreword writer describes it as “a true story,” but co-author Tracy Holroyd, who wrote it with her brother David, told me they fictionalized Capello’s story for legal reasons (like I did with my human-dolphin love novel Wet Goddess). Does it matter? No, because his story reflects what former trainers like O’Barry and SeaWorld’s John Hargrove have revealed about the job.
We open with Capello in the middle of a performance with Duchess and Herb’e, his “perfect pair,” two dolphins who can synchronize their moves flawlessly, and we find that he’s directing them by… thinking? Flashback to Capello, a callow 17-year-old, hearing his mom suggest he apply as an assistant at a dolphin show. Although disinterested, he somehow gets the job and goes to work at a training facility, improbably located in a grimy coal-mining town.
The first reality Capello encounters is unwanted animals: a pair of messy penguins and a dangerous sea lion. He gets so friendly with the pinniped that, after a drunken binge, he ends up sleeping in its cage! When confronted by an irate local whose parking space he’s taken, Capello experiences weirdness: the sea lion comes to his defense. “For the oddest moment,” he relates, “it seemed as though I were looking in a mirror; then I felt all my aggression seeping away and saw it – actually saw it – filling up those big green eyes.”
This is the first time he experiences what he calls a connection with other species, and when the first pair of dolphins show up for training, the feeling is amplified.
“Aren’t you beautiful? I thought. I reached out and, as my hand made contact with this strangely different creature of the sea, my nervy excitement began to dissipate, leaving in its wake a sense of peace and calm. I felt something: a connection of some kind that made me feel light-headed. It was as if she was stealing my strength, leaving me feeling weak and disoriented, yet I couldn’t break free of her spell. I was totally and utterly captivated.
“This animal was giving off some serious vibes.”
Here, Capello joins a very select group of humans, including me, O’Barry, New Zealand trainer Frank Robson, former U.S. Navy scientist Michael Greenwood and a few others who claim to have been touched by the dolphins in a remarkable way: mentally. But let us leave this improbability momentarily to continue Capello’s story.
By this point all the major forces are in play which will, I suspect, carry the story through three volumes. Capello rapidly becomes very possessive of Duchess and Herb’e, thinking of them as his dolphins, when in reality they belong to the megalithic company that issues his paychecks. The fact that other trainers can’t get them to perform makes no difference. Young, hard-working and sometimes just dumb lucky, Capello soon finds himself running the dolphin training operation and confronting all the problems which the commoditization and exploitation of sentient non-human species creates.
When the “perfect pair” aren’t up to performing eight shows on holidays, a second team of dolphins must be imported, one of whom turns out to have been traumatized in capture. Capello describes in agonizing detail the enormous stress of capturing her twice a day and trying to force-feed her. When the filtration system can’t handle the amount of waste in the water, he risks the wrath of management by dumping the tank and refilling it. When the show finally opens to the public, a woman trainer steals the limelight by disrobing for the cameras of the Fleet Street tabloids… and so on.
During all this time, Capello also recounts the colorful and sometimes creepy people he roomed with. He recalls his work as a trainer so clearly and vividly that I wonder if he kept a private journal, or had copies of the individual dolphins’ logbooks to work from.
Capello ends The Enchanted Mirror with himself ascendant, Duchess and Herb’e working as the perfect pair and a second duo, including one unfortunate dolphin blinded in shipping, as back-up performers. He feels on top of the world until he learns that a third pair of dolphins are being sent to him for training… a couple ominously known as Bonnie and Clyde.
Stand by for Vol. II: The Mirror Cracks.
Fiction it may (or may not) be, The Perfect Pair is one of the best and most authentic books I’ve ever read about the realities of dolphin training. The Holroyd siblings manage to convey all the aspects of the job, be they boring, funny, horrifying or wonderful. Although their writing is very good, I had a couple of minor quibbles. While most of the story is told in past tense it occasionally shifts into present tense, Capello talking to himself during the more extreme chapters. Tracy Holroyd described this as a deliberate technique to engage the reader, but I found it disconcerting. Also, a disturbing scene of some poltergeist-like nocturnal activity in the oceanarium raises questions that aren’t answered in this volume.
Historically, tales involving human-dolphin interaction don’t end well for the dolphins. This goes all the way back to Pliny the Elder, who in the 1st Century CE wrote in amazement of a dolphin who visited the now-Tunisian city of Hippo Diarrhytus. Alas, the creature’s friendly nature attracted many wealthy visitors. “At last, the vexations that were caused them by having to entertain so many influential men who came to see this sight, compelled the people of Hippo to put the animal to death,” Pliny wrote. So, while I have a dark feeling about how the Holroyds’ telling of Capello’s tale will end, fascination and professional interest compel me to continue. Ignorance is not bliss, particularly when you’ve gotten as close to one of these creatures as I have.
And what about that mysterious feeling of “connection” that Capello describes, the ability to train and direct dolphins with his mind? This is one of those things that gets discussed in back rooms at marine mammal conferences. A lot of trainers report it; I know, because I’ve spoken to some. Scientists generally dismiss telepathy and other such paranormal phenomena as preposterous notions, the product of superstition or delusions. Well, I may have been stoned when I was communicating with my dolphin, Dolly, but I’m not stupid. I doubted the experiences at the time and thought I was literally going crazy later on, but it turns out I wasn’t: I’m not the only one who’s had a dolphin get into his mind.
I can’t begin to explain how they do it, but consider this: We humans have been in our present form on Earth, Homo sapiens, for about 150,000 years. That’s not even a blink in time. Dolphins, on the other hand, have been in their present form for at least 12 million years, or 80 times longer than we have. They not only have a vast history of survival, but they’ve been self-aware all that time and able to explore their consciousness. Isn’t it possible they’ve figured out some things about mind and the nature of reality that we haven’t?
The Perfect Pair will give you one man’s insight into their world as he encountered it, but if you find yourself buying the whole trilogy, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
(Malcolm J. Brenner is the author of the 2010 novel Wet Goddess: Recollections of a Dolphin Lover and two other books. He lives in Punta Gorda, Fla.)