'The worst kept secret in Pontefract' - the Manchester-born dolphin trainer turned animal activist who trained dolphins, sea lions and penguins at a South Elmsall swimming pool

'This story has to be told’ -  former dolphin trainer turned animal activist and author, David Holroyd, tells his story about his years as an dolphin trainer at the old South Elmsall Swimming Pool, where he worked with dolphins, penguins and sea lions.
The man who trained dolphins, penguins and sea lions at a South Elmsall pool, David HolroydThe man who trained dolphins, penguins and sea lions at a South Elmsall pool, David Holroyd
The man who trained dolphins, penguins and sea lions at a South Elmsall pool, David Holroyd

Back in 1971, 17-year-old Manchester born David Holroyd stepped off the train at South Elmsall railway station, to pursue his new career as dolphin trainer, under the stage name ‘David Capello’.

His mother introduced him to the job when she saw an advertisement in the Manchester Evening News calling for locals to try their hand at dolphin training.

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And David made the final cut - he was selected to set off to start life as an aquatic animal trainer in the old South Elmsall village pool, which had been converted into a training centre for the aquatic mammals.

David pictured with one of his favourite dolphinsDavid pictured with one of his favourite dolphins
David pictured with one of his favourite dolphins

They were later sold to zoos, shows and dolphinariums across the world.

David said: “South Elmsall was the first pool I ever worked at when I was an animal trainer, I remember getting off the train in my platform shoes, split flares and long hair.

“And I stayed there for around nine months before I moved to Knowsley safari park, and I went on to become a head trainer for Entam Leisure, who constructed and operated a number of dolphinariums across the country.

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“It was the worst kept secret in the village, all the locals knew about the dolphins, as me and the other trainers got to befriend all the people there.

Susan Shields, 20, of Pickering - one of David's old colleaguesSusan Shields, 20, of Pickering - one of David's old colleagues
Susan Shields, 20, of Pickering - one of David's old colleagues

“When we needed to net the dolphins for veterinary checks, we’d get the local lads and even some of the police to help us rally the animals up.

“I remember the local characters with great fondness - very abrupt but they all had hearts of gold.

“The training pool at South Elmsall was so unassuming, and I’ve no doubt that that’s why it was built there.”

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When David first arrived at the training pools, there were no dolphins - but surprisingly there were two mischievous penguins, named Smelly and Worse.

Duchess and Herbie posing for the cameraDuchess and Herbie posing for the camera
Duchess and Herbie posing for the camera

Later a large bull California sea lion named Bobby would join the lineup of weird and wonderful residents at the facility.

Eventually, David went on to train two dolphins who were caught in America and sent over to the South Elmsall for training.

Their names were Duchess and Herbie and they were labelled among other trainers across the country as ‘The Perfect Pair’.

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David said: “They were so unique because when they performed, they’d jump in perfect unison.

David, pictured with Duchess at the facilityDavid, pictured with Duchess at the facility
David, pictured with Duchess at the facility

“Herbie’s stage name was ‘Flippa’, they became very famous as Europe's top performing team, and they were marketed as the ‘perfect pair’.

“They were caught in America, the bloke that caught them noticed something strange; when he caught Duchess, Herbie wouldn’t leave her side, so they ended up catching them both and sending them to us as a duo.

“It was like watching shadows when they’d perform, they were so close - everything was done as one.

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“All the people I met during my time as a trainer used to talk about finding the perfect pair, it was like a mythical thing with trainers.

“But I was lucky - I found the perfect pair with the first dolphins I ever worked with.”

As David’s training skills advanced, he would go on to form bonds with the sea creatures, which earned him the nickname, ‘The psychic trainer’.

David pictured with Duchess and HerbieDavid pictured with Duchess and Herbie
David pictured with Duchess and Herbie

It was David’s reputation that earned him the invitation of a lifetime from the Billy Smart circus, to train the only Killer whale in Europe, which was being held at Windsor Safari Park.

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Baby and Scouse were another pair of dolphins in David’s care, Scouse was blind due to an accident during his transport from Florida.

It was claimed that Scouse was untrainable due to his sight loss, but David managed to get through to him, earning Scouse the position of UK’s top performing dolphin.

David said: “The way the circus and performing animal industry ran was very sinister."

He claims that Baby was two years below the legal age for the training and transporting of dolphins.

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He said: “Due to my reputation as the psychic trainer, this caused great deal of problems in later life with the company.

“There were hundreds and thousands of pounds worth of dolphins that would only work for me.”

It was David’s attachment and respect for the creatures that drove him to quit a couple of years later.

The mortality rate for the captive dolphins was very high, in the wild the creatures live between 60 and 70 years, but they’d only survive five to six years at most in captivity.

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David, who is now an animal rights activist, has written a series of books about his time as a dolphin trainer called The Perfect Pair trilogy.

The names and places of people involved have been changed, but David claims all the stories and anecdotes are true to life experiences.

He co-wrote the first book with his sister, Tracy, which tells the story of his time as a trainer in South Elmsall - it became a core text for the University of Salford's BA(Hons) degree in English and Creative Writing.

An extract from the book, ‘Deliver Us From Bobby!’ tells the story of a sea lion escaping from the facility and it won first prize in a Manchester Evening News literary competition.

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David said: “When I lost Herbie I became very ill, I had a nervous breakdown and I had to walk away from animal training.

“I was managing those pools on the dolphin side, and it began to dawn on me that it was wrong and considering things I saw, it all became unacceptable and I left it behind.

“Reflecting, I can see why I reached the top of what I did, but because I’m now an activist, it’s considered quite controversial.

“In the past I drew up training programmes for three dolphinarium pools across the country and I know there should never be captive dolphins.

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“Now in those days, tigers, elephants and dolphins were just a few animals used for entertainment, and I’ve been a part of it first hand, which makes me qualified to fight against animal exploitation.

“I kept quiet for 30 years and even my close friends in the pub didn't know I used to be the UKs top dolphin trainer.

“And one day I decided I couldn't keep it quiet for much longer, this story has to be told so things like this never happen again.”

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