Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Behind the Dolphin Smile

Interested in dolphins?  Want to read about dolphins?  

I was asked to review Richard O'Barry's book Behind the Dolphin Smile by Mandala Publishing.  

I first became aware of Ric O'Barry through his work on halting the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan.  It is a disgusting, heartbreaking event, and if you are not aware of it (or even if you are) I suggest you check out the film The Cove, which in graphic detail sheds light on the atrocities occurring there.  From this site, you can also find out more and get involved.  To take further action, check out this site, affiliated with them.

Because I am such a strong advocate for O'Barry's work and admire what he's doing, I was disappointed in the book.  Not because it isn't interesting or well-written, but rather because it is strife with stories of environmental plunder and animal abuse.  Granted, this book was published before O'Barry became an advocate for not only the Taiji dolphins but captive dolphins everywhere, and one could argue before he "saw the light"; furthermore, I cannot imagine spending a handful of years creating your own hell that you then spend the rest of your life trying to dig yourself out of (think being responsible for putting many of the world's captive dolphins in horrendous conditions and then spending the rest of your years trying, usually unsuccessfully, to free those dolphins).  I feel deeply sorry for this man who is trying to right his wrongs, and only commend him for coming to his senses and fighting - hard - for dolphins everywhere.  For this reason, I am apprehensive about posting anything negative about him, for fear of harming his cause in anyway.  

Let me state that what Ric O'Barry is doing is courageous and commendable and I admire his efforts deeply.  

I found some anecdotes from Behind the Dolphin Smile fascinating, from the story of his attempt to free Charlie Brown in Bimini, to hand feeding a baby dolphin (which ultimately led to her survival in captivity) when it had never before been done, to the realization that dolphins were not automatic breathers like other mammals and therefore cannot be anesthetized.

I loved this passage:

"In some ages, as depicted in ancient fables, animals were our friends, or at least equals.  Animals and people talked together.  Gods sometimes took the form of animals, and some societies either deified or defiled certain animals. 

With the triumph of Christianity, all that changed.  Nature became the bad guy.  And animals were a part of nature.  When the soul was attributed to humans and not the animals, the pious decided that if we didn’t keep tight rein on our passions, we, too, could return to the level of beasts.  The animal nature in each of us was like the Devil himself waiting to snare the unwary.  Man pictured himself as a sort of amphibian, one foot in heaven, the other in nature with the animals.  He considered passion, emotion, and feelings as signs of his animal nature, the best in each of us that must be restrained.  To many people, civilization itself is but the restraint of animal emotion on the largest scale.  Without laws, they say, we would all revert to the level of savage brutes."

However, I found it bothersome that someone who held dolphins in such esteem has such little (or even total) disregard for other wildlife, including but not limited to stingrays, parrot fish, seahorses, octopi, sharks, and pelicans.  He thought nothing of sacrificing these animals, whether for display in aquaria or for a good screen shot for the TV series Flipper (for which he was the dolphin trainer).  He even implies that the pelican whose wings they clipped upon capture "loved" being held captive on the set of a TV show.  It is this anthropomorphic, naive mentality that has created the very man-made hell for dolphins that he fights against - I was shocked to see that even he is not immune from that mentality, when it comes to species other than dolphins.  Along these same lines, at one point he suggests that Susie the dolphin wanted to be "rescued" rather than allowed to go back out to sea, and later he implies that the dolphins he was training were  "spoiled and manipulative".  Again, these anthropomorphic assumptions are why humans hold animals in captivity in the first place, including dolphins.  He also contributed to widespread environmental destruction through his collection efforts, via trawling, long lines, the dispensing of ammonia into the sea, and the destruction of coral reefs, which he shared no remorse for.

There were a few instances in which he should have conducted some further research - as his use of the terms "gosset hawks" (which do not exist) and "seagulls" (which is an incorrect term) evidence, as well as a remark that dolphin anatomy is different because their mouths are connected to their stomachs and not their lungs (implying that our mouths are connected to what...  our lungs?).

Finally, and perhaps the most egregious criticism of all that I have, is near the end of the book, once he'd decided he no longer believed in keeping dolphins in captivity and started his Dolphin Project, he targeted three individuals whom he called the primary dolphin capturers in the country.  I thought, finally, we're getting somewhere, he's going to go after them and shut them down.  But no - what does he then do?  He paid one of those very individuals in order to acquire more dolphins for his own captive purposes.  He totally lost me here, and I must say, this makes me question, on some level, all of his motivation.  It reeks of "I can have wild dolphins for my purposes but no one else can."  I take enormous issue with this, and would love for him to explain himself on this point.

The book aside, I think the movement behind his organization is larger than the man, and very worthy.  I stand for all they do, and I hope that you will check out the two above links and take further action.

And I will leave you with a quote that I gleaned from the book:

“The time will come when they will sell you even your rain.  At the moment, it is still free and I am in it, I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.”
~ Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable