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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Another Minnesota ballplaying great passes on

Duluth News Tribune, March 8, 2006

While our hearts go out for Kirby Puckett, Dana Reeve, and, as we heard late yesterday, Gordon Parks, let's take a moment to honor Rio, the oldest female dolphin at the Minnesota Zoo who died at 35 Monday night.

This isn't meant out of any disrespect to Puckett or other humans, but a show of admiration to another species we probably could learn a lot from. I never met Puckett, but I'm pretty sure I had a personal encounter with Rio, most definitely her pool mates. You'll excuse me if I couldn't tell exactly which was which. The year was 1983. Rio had been at the zoo for three years and was a part of the dolphin show that my then-wife, Lynn, and daughter Erin wandered upon. Several dolphins were performing the usual}-- jumping out of the water, gliding through hoops and playing ball with the trainers. The crowd was quite impressed, but of course it was all well-rehearsed, with the dolphins rewarded for each trick with a fish.

When it ended, the trainers left and most of the spectators meandered off, but for some reason we stayed. So did a couple of the dolphins. A ball was left in the pool and all of a sudden one grabbed it with its snout and threw it at me. I caught it and threw it back. Both dolphins got into the act. I felt guilty I didn't have any fish, but they didn't seem to mind. The game went on.

Other visitors began gathering and the dolphins invited them to play -- for a little while.

"One guy came up and threw the ball really hard," Lynn recalled yesterday, confirming my memory wasn't playing tricks on me. "(The dolphins) took the ball and hid it."

When that jerk finally left, the dolphins retrieved the ball and resumed the game with me.

"It was because they liked you," remembered Erin, though she was barely three at the time and often confused the dolphin experience with a scarier one involving wild turkeys as big as her on a petting farm in Lake County.

Though animal lovers are prone to anthropomorphize and ascribe human characteristics to other species, we weren't imagining this. Even my ex (what could be a better endorsement than that?) says it was obvious they thought I was a nice guy.

And that flies in the face of those who maintain humans are so much more evolved or superior to animals, and that even intelligent species only do things for Pavlovian rewards. They just wanted to play for fun, and only with whom they chose.

"That's very much in their nature, even when there isn't fish involved," said zoo spokeswoman Sue Gergen, confirming that Rio was quite likely in the show at the time. "They are very highly intelligent and very social and they do like to play."

Whether it was actually Rio who played with me or a couple of her buddies, I'm glad they chose me. Thanks for the game.

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