Animal Writes
From 20 April 2003 Issue

Dolphins - Tools of War

The following two websites help give a little background to this issue. 

The staff of Animal Rights Online would like to thank Ric O'Barry, the former trainer of Flipper, for the following interview:

Q) Where are you located?

A) Miami Florida USA

Q) How did you come to be involved in dolphin rehabilitation? What are you and your organization up to these days?

A) I became involved in captive dolphin rehabilitation on the first Earth Day in 1970. Having captured more that 100 dolphins by that time, I had a "ding" moment in which I realized that what I was doing was wrong. I used to capture and train dolphins for the dolphin captivity industry, and now I UN-train them and put them back where they belong. Instant karma you might say. I am now working for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) We are very involved in trying to stop the trade in captive dolphins and educate the public about this issue. Occasionally we do a captive dolphin rescue, rehab and release project.

Q) What's the funniest thing you've ever seen a dolphin do?

A) Having racked my brain with this question all day, I honestly can't recall anything funny that I observed in captive dolphins.

Q) You once spent 6 months with your wife Helene on an island that was barely 984 steps in circumference at low tide. What was the most memorable part of that adventure?

A) Observing the healing process of dolphin Stephania was the most memorable part of this or any captive dolphin rehab project that we do. We had just rescued Stephania from a dolphin abusement park in San Andres, Colombia, and transferred her from a small sub-standard tank that she had been living in for ten years to a natural sea pen that we built on this tiny island far away from civilization, literally in the middle of nowhere. When Stephania was reunited with the ocean, she could once again experience the natural rhythms of the sea, the tides and currents and take advantage of the trace elements of natural sea water, which have healing properties. For the first time in ten years, she could chase and eat live fish. Seeing a captive dolphin get its life back is the most memorable experience that I have had. Of course, living in a tent on a romantic tropical island with my lovely Danish bride was pretty memorable too.

Q) Approximately how many dolphins are in captivity worldwide currently? On average, what are their living conditions like?

A) These animals are treated as well as possible by our standards, but poorly indeed by theirs. There are about 1000 captive dolphins spread out around the world, not counting the military dolphins. The Russian military had about 500 and the US Navy have about 100. They all live in substandard conditions and they are all controlled by food. There are captive dolphins in shopping malls, amusement parks, roadside shows, a disco. We even have captive dolphins in a Las Vegas Hotel/Casino which are used as a "draw" to attract customers.

Q) If you weren't doing this work, what would you be doing?

A) I would probably be a mindless painter/poet living in the left bank in Paris once again, Helene and I met in Paris, we lived there before we were married.

Q) Do you personally know any of the dolphins in the gulf currently?
A) I spent some time at the US Navy marine mammal facility in San Diego, so yes, I met all the dolphins and the beluga whale there. As you know, the navy dolphin program is top secret, thus we really don't know which dolphins are in the war zone and which are standing by to be trained to enter the war zone, but yes, I have met all of them.

Q) What is your take on the Navy's Marine Mammal Program? And more importantly, why on Earth do they call their trained dolphins "Advanced Biological Weapons Systems?"

A) I would like to preface this answer by telling you that my father was in the navy, so was my brother. I spent five most important years of my life in the US Navy, serving with an anti-submarine hunter-killer group, so I'm a navy man. Having said that, I disagree with the navy on this particular program. I think that the US Navy marine mammal program is cruel and unusual and it should be abolished. In a perfect world, the animals would be given an honorable discharge and sent home, but we don't live in a perfect world. The term Advanced Biological Weapon System (ABWS) is an accurate job description. It is also very revealing as it describes the navy's utilitarian relationship with nature. In my opinion, this is also a faulty weapon system and should be replaced with an alternative such as side scan sonar (SSC) which is cruelty free and much more dependable.

Q) First the Navy dolphin named Tacoma goes AWOL, now he's reportedly back, what do you think is going on?

A) Tocoma may have been outfitted with an Anti Foraging Devise (AFD). This is a simple one inch wide strip of orange Velcro which is attached around the snout. The AFD prevents the dolphin from opening its mouth which is necessary for the dolphin to catch fish and eat. This is how the navy dolphins are controlled when they are in the open sea. When one is lost, they send out a search team to look for the "system" using a "recall pinger," which can be heard by the dolphin from a great distance. If the dolphin returns to the pinger and trainer, the AFD is removed and the ABWS is rewarded with food. If the "system" is lost, they simply replace it with another one. Tocoma probably returned to be fed. By the way, navy dolphins go AWOL all the time. I have photo's of one of them seven miles from Key West wearing the AFD. I know of six more Atlantic bottlenose dolphin that escaped from the navy program in the Pacific Ocean never to be found again.

Q) I heard that the real worry to the mine sweeping effort was from Iraqi dolphins. What do you know about these Iraqi dolphins? How tough / territorial are they? How many in their crew?

A) The real danger to the dolphins is -- and I'm talking about all dolphins in a war zone -- is the fact that every dolphin in the area, wild or trained, is placed in harm's way because the enemy simply kills every dolphin that they come across. One can't really tell the difference between the friendly and enemy dolphins. "Kill them all and let God sort them out" is how it works in a combat situation. This is done with bombs, grenades, and especially "ashcans" which is an anti-submarine explosion devise. I really can't tell you much about the Iraqi dolphins, I really don't know about them. I do know that when the cold war ended, many of the Soviet navy dolphin trainers started working in the middle east capturing and training dolphins for the captive dolphin industry in that part of the world, but I don't have any insight into the details of their activities.

Q) Can different pods communicate or is there a language barrier?

A) Yes, there is a language barrier with different pods in different geographical locations. However, they may be able to achieve some degree of communication by reading body language.

Q) From my understanding, the mine sweeping effort to clear waterways for allied ships carrying humanitarian aid is vital to the overall war effort. (Only one ship, The Sir Galahad, has made it through as of March 31st due to mines and weather). Obviously, the effectiveness of the mine sweeping operation determines how quickly aid will reach thousands of starving Iraqi citizens and thus how many Iraqi lives will be saved/lost. Our response to the urgent needs of Iraqi civilians will undoubtedly have a strong influence on how the US invasion of Iraq is ultimately perceived - which of course will carry innumerable geopolitical consequences in the future for our country and the world. Really if you think about it, it can be logically concluded that the fate of the entire planet is hanging on these 5 dolphins who may or may not be more interested in getting laid than sweeping mines. True or False?

A) True. Fact is, dolphins are not dependable, Again, they are controlled by food. When they are full, they do not respond and the trainer loses control. This is exactly why I had five dolphins for the Flipper TV series. When Flipper # 1 had ten pounds of food and was full, I lost control and I would bring on Flipper # 2 and so on.

Q) Regarding the recent reports of dolphins being used to help identify mines near the Iraqi port of Umm Qa, it is the position of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) that their welfare needs should be of paramount importance.

A) WSPA believes that all animals kept by, or under the control of, humans must be maintained in circumstances appropriate to their species. In the case of the US Navy dolphins, along with the inherent dangers of the duties they are called upon to perform, the suffering caused by the training, transport and keeping in captivity of this species is well documented and a cause for great concern.

Animals are apolitical and should not be drafted into military service or deliberately put in danger during a human conflict.

Q) Why don't they use Orca instead? Orcas seem the obvious marine mammal weapon of choice, especially when it comes to dissuading divers from approaching your ship. Tagging an enemy diver's ankle, how about biting enemy diver in half? They echolocate, are trainable, and they do not take any sh*t from Iraqi dolphins. Please explain.

A) They did use Orcas in the early days of this program, they went AWOL however. Another problem in using Orcas is the warm water of the gulf, especially in the summertime. This is also a huge problem for the dolphins that are currently being used. When the summer comes and if the dolphins are still there, they will indeed suffer. The navy lost some dolphins in this area during the last war because of warm water. Navy dolphins were also used in Viet Nam and some of them never returned.

Q) Are dolphins smarter than really dumb people? What about the "healing powers" assertion?

A) Smart and dumb are human concepts and these concepts do not apply to other forms of life. Many people think that dolphins are more intelligent than us because they have a bigger brain and are more fully developed. Having worked with dolphins and other whales for more than 40 years, I have come to the conclusion that they are not more intelligent, and they are not less intelligent, they are simply "different". Regarding the healing power of dolphins, it's bogus. These are victim dolphins that are captured and dragged kicking and screaming into captivity, there are no volunteers. Once in captivity, their job is to amuse an endless stream of people for the rest of their life. Many of these people are sold snake oil medicine in the form of healing dolphins. It's all about money. It's inherently hypocritical to capture the dolphin and destroy the quality of life to enhance ours.

Q) Have you ever run into a dolphin you once rehabilitated and released? How did it react to seeing you? I mean, once a dolphin has been rehabilitated and released, does it ever interact with a human again? How do they generally react?

A) Yes, the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) has rescued, rehabilitated and released several former captive dolphins back into the wild successfully. One of them was called "Flipper," he was the last captive dolphins of Brazil. We have good documentation of the dolphin doing well two years later, this is just one example. If one does this work correctly, and the trained behaviors are extinguished properly, the dolphin will blend back into nature. A successful release would mean that the bonds with, and dependency upon, humans are broken and the dolphin becomes more interested in other dolphins and nature, not in human contact. By the way, we just had a sighting on Turbo and Ariel, they are two dolphin that WSPA rescued, rehabilitated and released in Guatemala, they are doing fine I'm happy to report.

Q) Besides what we know from their Discovery Channel rap sheet (raping young female dolphins and murdering young porpoises as I remember) what's the meanest thing you've ever seen a dolphin do?
A) I have never witnessed any of these things that you mention. I really can't recall any dolphin that I ever met doing anything mean to anyone.

Q) Who are Buck and Luther? What happened to them and where are they now?

A) Buck and Luther were two navy dolphins that I released back into the wild. (This was before my WSPA days incidentally). They were recaptured by the navy a few days later. They were able to use the navy recall pinger that I mentioned earlier to lure them back into a sea pen. Fact is, that release project was sabotaged because it had the potential to open the door of freedom for all navy dolphins. This was a major threat to the entire navy marine mammal program and had the potential to end the flow of millions of dollars to the civilian corporation that run this program. Our effort was also hampered by an anti-animal rights infiltrator, and several animal welfare groups who attached themselves to the project for marketing reasons. It became very difficult for Buck, Luther and all the other dolphins we were trying to free at the time. After they were recaptured, Buck was sent to the Dolphin Research Center (DRC), also known as the Dolphin Riding Center. He spent a few miserable years there painting pictures for tourists before he died of terminal captivity. Luther was flown back to the polluted waters of San Diego Bay and back into active duty in the navy. Luther -- if he is still alive -- may be heading for the war zone. By the way, I wrote a book about all of this. it's called: To Free a Dolphin, if any of your readers are interested, they can find this book at: 

Q) Can you feel echolocation when dolphins use it around/on you?

A) Yes you can. I've been zapped a million times or more, feels pretty cool.

Footnote: Here are some of the listed causes of death among US Navy dolphins:
* Foreign body ingestion
* Capture shock
* Drowning
* Failure to adapt
* Related to jaw fracture
* Possible toxic fish
* During release
* Spinal fracture
* Toxic shock
* Failure to thrive
* During testing

Source: Marine Mammal Inventory Report (MMIR) 11/09/2000. (Available through the Freedom of Information Act.)

Richard O'Barry
Marine Mammal Specialist
World Society for the Protection of Animals.
34 Deloss Street, Framingham, MA 01702 USA
Tel: (305) 668-1619
Fax: (305) 668-1619
e-mail: [email protected] 

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