Liisa’s Friends


Dolphins have taught Liisa Roto that with animals, as with people, love must grow from trust.

Liisa Roto of Tampere, Finland, has some friends she’d like you to meet. But to visit them, you need an appointment. You have to wear paper shoes so you won’t track bacteria into their living area. And Liisa must talk to them, calm them down, and convince them to trust you.

Then Liisa will stand beside a pool, raise both hands over her head, and blow a whistle. Her friends will come racing through the water at you like sleek, gray torpedoes. Then they’ll turn upward like missiles and launch themselves into the air, splashing you in the process.

Liisa’s friends, you see, are dolphins.

“They’re marvelous creatures,” Liisa says. “Being around them every day, working with them, training them, you get to know each one as an individual.” Liisa calls each dolphin by name, and each one responds.

“This,” she says, “is Nasi (Naw-see). She likes to have her picture taken.” And the dolphin, obligingly, poses.

When Liisa, 20, first heard about the job at the Delfinaario (dolphin aquarium), she was excited. She had good qualifications. In the Finnish equivalent of high school, she had studied biology, but also mathematics, science, physics, and chemistry.

“All those things are part of the job,” she explains. “And I’ve always been interested in animals.” And the job would help her earn money to pay for college in Sweden. Her enthusiasm and background paid off. She was hired.

Liisa has learned that friendship with the ocean-going mammals means service. Each day, she prepares their food, feeds them vitamins, plays games with them, and gathers water samples from their tanks to test for bacteria. When she’s not actually with the dolphins, you’ll find her entering each animal’s daily history into a computer, discussing laboratory tests of the water samples, or reading technical journals.

She also spends time with fellow trainers and researchers, and she is the master of ceremonies for the dolphin shows presented to tourists and sightseers who gather in the Delfinaario’s arena. Sometimes she meets her father, Tampere stake president Pekka Roto, for a drive into town to stroll through Tampere’s renowned indoor market, where aisle after aisle is stacked with produce from around the world.

“I still eat fish,” she says, noting that dolphins aren’t fish but mammals. “But I’m not too fond of herring anymore. That’s what we feed the dolphins.”

Liisa’s favorite food? “Mushrooms.”

Her love for animals comes naturally. As a child she lived on a farm and had a pet horse. “I remember wondering when I was young if the Lord could love my horse as much as I did. I decided that he must, and that I must love all his creatures, too. They are, after all, part of this world he created for me and for you.”

Talk with Liisa about dolphins, and you can tell she knows a lot about them: The dolphins are transported to Finland from Florida in the United States and from the Gulf of Mexico. While being shipped to their new home, they’re smeared with an emulsion to keep them from losing moisture. Dolphins won’t naturally eat dead fish—they have to be taught to—but baby dolphins can be fed by spraying milk into their mouths. When one of the animals is sick, the others feel sorry and look after it. And dolphins are one of the most intelligent animals. They communicate with each other through a series of whistles and high-pitched clicking noises, almost sounding like birds. They navigate through the water by using a built-in sonar.

Liisa knows that dolphins are natural jumpers and that trainers reinforce that characteristic to teach them new tricks, like how to “walk” backward on their tails. Dolphins play to entertain themselves, and trainers work with that tendency to teach them to use balls, hoops, and baskets.

You can also tell that Liisa has a great fondness for the dolphins. She’ll pour water into the tank and show you how the dolphins gather to feel the bubbles on their faces and heads. She’ll have the dolphins clap the water with their fins, or slide up out of the pool so you can pet them. Through it all, she treats the animals with the utmost respect.

“They are my friends,” she says. “I know Heavenly Father wants us to be kind to them.”

Liisa has read in the Pearl of Great Price that the Lord created the creatures of the sea. “And I, God, said: Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life” (Moses 2:20). She knows that the Lord created all things … spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5). And she recalls a scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants: “For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures” (D&C 104:13).

“I can’t work around dolphins and feel they were created by chance,” Liisa says. “I can’t read the scriptures without feeling that the Lord wants us to share the world with its other inhabitants, so that we can all live and grow together.”

That’s the kind of belief that has made Liisa’s coworkers respect her, for they love the animals, too.

Of course, Liisa’s entire life isn’t centered around dolphins. In college, she’ll be studying economics and hopes some day to work in that field. She has a family that loves her and admires her, and she has a Church calling to fulfill. She talks about maybe serving a mission, about someday getting married in the temple and having a family of her own. And she still visits the family farm on the outskirts of Tampere, for she is friends with the animals there as well.

Liisa views her employment at the Delfinaario as a temporary situation. “It’s a job I love to do,” she says, “but it’s not what I always plan to do.” In the meantime she says she’s learning a lot about research, about training with love—“dolphins can really tell how you feel about them,” she says—and about friendship, the kind of friendship Heavenly Father intended to exist between animals and humans.

Editor’s note: Since this story was written, Liisa has been called as a full-time missionary to the United States and is laboring in the Utah Ogden Mission.

[photos] Photography by Richard M. Romney

[photos] Each day is full of work, but working together builds a deep sense of camaraderie. Audiences often comment about how well the dolphins and the trainers seem to know each other.

[photo] Each day, Liisa writes a history of each dolphin. “I’m just keeping track of my friends,” she says.