[Author’s note: Navy dolphins are operating in the Gulf as we speak to locate enemy mines, to stop enemy divers from planting mines on allied ships, and to clear a path for humanitarian aid ships waiting dock in Iraqi ports. Richard is the original trainer of “Flipper” the dolphin and now a captive dolphin rescuer. I spoke with him about the current navy dolphin program and other things.]

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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 than 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) in Miami, Florida, USA. We are very involved in trying to stop the trade in captive dolphins, and educating the public about this issue.

Q: You once spent six months with your wife 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 a dolphin named 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 re-united 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.

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

A: There are about 1,000 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 sub-standard conditions and are controlled by food.

Q: Do you personally know any of the dolphins currently in the Gulf?

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 Weapon Systems?”

A: I think that the 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. The term Advanced Biological Weapon System (ABWS) is an accurate job description. It is also very revealing as it describes our relationship with nature. In my opinion, this is a faulty weapon system and should be replaced with an alternative such as side scan sonar, which is cruelty-free and more dependable.

Q: First the navy dolphin named Tacoma goes AWOL, now he’s reportedly back. What do you think is going on?

A: Tacoma may have been outfitted with an Anti Foraging Device (AFD). This is a simple strip of orange Velcro that 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.

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 — 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 the enemy dolphins. “Kill them all and let God sort them out” is the plan of the day. This is done with bombs, hand grenades, and especially “ashcans,” which is an anti-submarine explosion devise. I really can’t tell you much about the Iraqi dolphins. 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, but I don’t have any insight into their activities.

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

A: There is a language barrier. They may be able to achieve some degree of communication by reading body language, however.

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 geo-political consequences for the future for our country and the world. Really, if you think about it, it can be concluded that the fate of the planet is hanging on these five 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; they are controlled by food. When they are full, they do not respond. 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.

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.

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 orcas 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, biting enemy diver in half, etc? They echolocate, are trainable. 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: How smart are dolphins, really? 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 forty 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” — the last captive dolphin of Brazil. We have good documentation of the dolphin doing well two years later. 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.

Q: Following the cold war, Congress decided to scale back the military dolphin program and release all of their captive dolphins back into the wild. But then some people who perhaps had lucrative government contracts involving navy dolphins didn’t want to lose that money and started saying it would never work — that the dolphins wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild after years of captivity. You decided to release two of the navy dolphins, Buck and Luther, anyway, without getting permits first and got in some trouble. 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 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 program and had the potential to end the flow of millions of dollars to the civilian corporation that run this program. After they were re-captured, Buck was sent to the Dolphin Research Center (DRC), also known as the Dolphin Riding Center. He spent a few 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 soon. By the way, I wrote a book about all of this. It’s called: To Free a Dolphin.

Q: Dolphins are able to detect things like mines in murky water via “echolocation” — which is where they emit a sound and are able to deduce an image from that sound via the echo that bounces back off of underwater objects. Can you feel echolocation when dolphins use it around/on you?

A: Yes you can.

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Ric later sent the following addendum e-mail:


I meant to add this to the interview:

Here are some of the listed causes of death among US Navy dolphins:

Foreign body
Capture related
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.)