One of the perpetuating myths that surround dolphins
in captive care is the accusation that animals have committed suicide.
A review of the published evidence reveals various possible sources
for this myth.
the most populist source for this myth comes from the animal-rights
activist and and one of the former trainers of dolphins for the 60's
TV series Flipper is Ric
O'Barry (formerly O''Feldman). He claims that Kathy one of the number
of animals that played Flipper committed suicide in his 1989 book "Behind
the Dolphin Smile". He maintains that this animal committed suicide
in my arms and as dolphins "are not automatic air breathers"
she decided to stop breathing. A position that has actually now been
scientifically disproved. See veterinarian Michael T. Walsh comments
this the scientist Dr
John Lilly, a neurologist who began work with dolphins in the period
between 1955 and 1968, also made this claim. Although, Lilly original
research led to some interesting discoveries about dolphins, he has
been a very controversial figure due, among other things, to his claims
regarding dolphin intelligence and his habit of mixing empirical research
with imaginative speculation. He also left dolphin research for some
period of time and researched in the human mind using isolation flotation
tanks; this work also involved him in the use of hallucinogenic drugs,
such as LSD.
during his initial research that he discovered that general anaesthesia
could be lethal to dolphins, unless their breathing was supported by
artificial means. He, therefore, considered that dolphins were voluntary
he speculated that if dolphins have to 'think to breathe' dolphins could
committed suicide by stopping breathing. In his 1979 book Communications
between Man and Dolphin he states:
in a oceanarium, any dolphin/porpoise/whale is kept in isolation in
solitude...social deprivation may be so severe that the cetacean commits
suicide by voluntarily ceasing either breathing and/or eating."
that at a research facility he set up on the Virgin Islands (The Communication
Research Institute) that several of his research animals died in this
contemporary records of that time in his book Man and Dolphin, note
that his first two resident animals at the St. Thomas facility called
Lizzie and Baby did not die from suicide. Lizzie died three weeks after
arriving on the island from a brain haemorrhage due to a accident when
she was dropped prior to transport and also had evidence of a lung infection.
When Baby died it was found that he also had a chronic lung infection.
Interestingly, Lilly noted that both animals had 'bad-breath' and a
nasal discharge when transported from Florida.
to this, other animals he used in more contemporary research he undertook
in the 1980's did not die by committing suicide. In fact two, called
Rosie and Jim,
were the subject of a 'release project' and returned to the wild.
published research on this subject has cast some doubt on Lilly's original
belief of voluntary breathing in cetaceans. At the 1991, Conference
of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine, veterinarian,
T. Walsh, presented a paper aptly entitled "Cetacean
Facts and Fallacies". As regards cetaceans being voluntary
breathers he states:
is no physical or scientific evidence to verify this supposition.
It appears to be based partially on early investigations with anaesthetic
agents and popular myths. Current clinical investigations into the
use of sedatives and anaesthetics have shown that these individuals
are involuntary breathers."
Dr Lilly's opinions on the broader issue of oceanaria and dolphins in
captivity are not as damning as may be thought, and have seemly (and
with good reason) been over looked by many of the animal-rights groups
who are willing to quote him in other areas regarding dolphins.
book Communications between Man and Dolphin, he makes his feelings on
this issue quite clear, he states at the beginning of chapter twelve
in this book:
the Oceanaria may be closed by conservation groups...: I hope not."
goes on the outlay his own particular feeling on the future development
of such facilities.
In an Appendix
in the same book, outlining his plans in 1979 to return to working with
dolphins, he states why he has not attacked publicly the oceanaria for
oceanaria have done a very great services for the dolphins and killer
whales in acquainting literally hundreds and thousands of humans with
their existence and with their capabilities in a circus way. The dolphins
and whale are indebted to the oceanaria for educating the human species."
source for this accusation of captive suicide may have come from the
early research work of diver and broadcaster Jacques
Cousteau's experience with captive dolphin whilst making one of
his episodes of his television series The
Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau; later to be published as the
Undersea Discoveries of Jacques Cousteau: Dolphins published in
Cousteau used for his early captive research were common dolphins a
species known to be a nervous and which remain difficult to maintain
in captivity even to this day. In fact, only one institution, the now
in Napier, New Zealand, has been successful in maintaining these
animals in a captive environment for an acceptable period of time with
their last dolphin caught in 1974 dying in September 2008.
admits that their attempts to keep dolphins, at that time, were 'clumsy'
and the failure was due to knowing so little about marine mammals. He
states in the book, Dolphins published in 1975:
species of dolphin that is usually seen giving performance in American
marinelands is a species common in Florida's waters, the Tursiops
truncatus or bottlenose dolphin. This species adapts fairly well to
captivity and has a robust constitution. It is also found in the Mediterranean:
but there, the most numerous species is the Delphinus delphis or common
dolphin, which is smaller and lighter than the bottlenose dolphin.
It is also considered more delicate then the latter, as we were soon
of Cousteau's dolphin capture and experiments can be found HERE
1957 Cousteau's staff caught a female common dolphin, Kiki, for research
at his Oceanographic
Museum in Monaco. The animal was at first housed in a 'tank' of
undisclosed size at the museum. However, in early November it was moved
and housed in a hotel swimming pool and joined by a male Delphinus,
Dufduf. Unfortunately he subsequently died March 1958; his post-mortem
revealing he had swallowed pieces of wood and cloth.
original female, was returned to the tank at the Oceanographic museum
two weeks after Dufduf death. Here a newly caught pregnant female joined
her. However, this new animal died of head injuries due to crashing
into the tank wall after it panicked on introduction to the water and
escaped from the arms of a handler guiding it around the tank.
of careful handling of newly caught or transferred animals is highlighted
in the 1972 book Mammals of the Sea; Biology and Medicine. The book
Sam Ridgway - research veterinarian of the US Navy, stated on the
issue of newly introduced captured dolphins:
a new cetacean will have difficulty orienting itself and swimming
when place in the water...Sometimes human assistance is needed to
keep the porpoise (common term in the US for dolphin) from running
in the walls of the tank and to start swimming on its own...Attendants
should position themselves around the edge of the tank. if it appears
that animal is going to strike the wall the attendant should turn
deciding to catch an open ocean dolphin species with a highly nervous
disposition, Cousteau's animals were caught at sea and removed to the
tank at the museum within hours. As mentioned by Ridgway above - in
these situations it is common practise to ensure that persons a placed
in the water to guide the animal whist it adjusts to it's new surroundings.
Clearly due to his clear lack of knowledge in this area Cousteau allowed
a disorientated animal to run into the tank wall.
It is not
by chance that the bottlenose remains the dolphin of choice for captive
management, because it adapts to the captive environment well, unlike
some other species, such as Cousteau's ill-fated common dolphins.