The Dolphin House

The Dolphin House

2021, Nature  -   1 Comment
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Dolphins are considered among the most intelligent animals in the world, some say second to humans and smarter than primates. These small cetaceans live in complex, cultured societies, have highly developed communication abilities and are highly self-aware, just like us human beings.

They have been the subject of many scientific or zoological studies over the last 70 years. One of the most famous and controversial studies took place in 1965 when eccentric yet famed neuroscientist John Lilly set up a lab in a house by the ocean on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. The Dolphin House lab would test dolphins and their ability to learn, understand and speak English.

He was assisted by 23-year old Margaret Howe, who - as part of the experiment - lived in the flooded house for 10 to 12 weeks alone with a fully grown bottle-nosed dolphin named Peter. Margaret attempted to teach Peter how to speak as a mother would teach her toddler.

At this time, many saw dolphins as nothing special. Yet, they have large brains, and early researchers discovered they could mimic human tones and seemed to interact with each other in a more sophisticated, highly evolved way. Part of Lilly's funding even came from NASA, which was interested in any insights it could gain and apply to possible communications with interstellar beings.

When the experiment began, Margaret and Peter spent almost 24 hours together as she attempted to help him sound out English words vs the sounds that dolphins naturally make to communicate, including whistles, grunts, clicks and squeaks. Peter was a happy dolphin who was very engaged and also very active. Margaret felt like she was making some progress, but John was dissatisfied. As the weeks went on, Margaret noticed that Peter was in heat, coming into full adulthood from being an adolescent dolphin. He became uninterested in the lessons and was distracted, approaching Margaret in search of sexual relief.

Things took a turn for the worse after this. John, still impatient for better results in interspecies communication, decided to inject Peter with LSD to stimulate his brain. John was a heavy LSD user, exploring the psychological impact and possibilities it could offer the brain. The LSD greatly affected the dolphin, making him turn a bit more aggressive, nibbling on the feet and legs of Margaret, who was greatly opposed to John's interference. Margaret - just wanting Peter to focus on his English training - decided to start offering the dolphin relief by manually rubbing his genitalia - every time he got overly stimulated.

Peter suffered heavily from the LSD use and eventually committed suicide by refusing to come up for air from his tank. There was an uproar when word came out, John lost credibility and all his sponsors, NASA included, withdrew all his funding.

The Dolphin House experiment did not deliver on its promise of unlocking the secrets to interspecies communication. However, it made many aware of the mental capabilities of dolphins as well as the need for ethical practices in animal-related experiments.

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