New York Times
SOUTHAMPTON, England — Fifty years ago, at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke spoke of things to come. He foresaw a 21st century that would witness “the development of intelligent and useful servants among the other animals on this planet, particularly the great apes and, in the oceans, the dolphins and whales.” Clarke saw this as a way of solving “the servant problem,” although he also imagined that the animals would form labor unions, “and we’d be right back where we started.”
I thought of Clarke when I read recent reports of the military employment of dolphins in a Cold War-style face-off of cetaceans near Crimea. According to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, marine mammals trained by the United States will take part in exercises in the waters of the Black Sea where their counterparts in the Russian Navy already swim.
In fact, the military was already researching dolphins even before Clarke made his prophecies. As D. Graham Burnett, a professor of the history of science at Princeton, points out in “The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the 20th Century,” the United States Navy has run a once-classified marine mammal program since 1960.
Dolphins, orcas and beluga and pilot whales have all been investigated for their military usefulness. According to the Navy’s website, dolphins are trained to locate mines “so they can be removed or avoided.” Dolphins were deployed in both the Persian Gulf wars on such tours of duty, flown in and out on aircraft, like cetacean Marines. They were used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq to locate mines in Umm Qasr’s harbor.
There have been rumors that cetaceans have also been employed as dolphin drones, remote deliverers of death. During the Vietnam War, it was claimed that dolphins were used in lethal “swimmer nullification programs,” their beaks fitted with needles to deliver fatal injections of carbon dioxide gas to Vietcong divers. The Navy denies the stories.
Dr. Burnett notes that the use of cetaceans, imagined and otherwise, in acts of warfare fed the “countercultural tensions” that surrounded cetaceans during the 1960s and ’70s, contributing to the way they became the “totemic organisms of peaceniks, freaks, and ecoterrorists.” He also points out that the most notorious name in dolphin studies — John C. Lilly, who proposed that the marine mammals spoke “dolphinese,” and experimented by dosing them with LSD — drew on research done by the Navy for much of his controversial work.
We humans, it seems, can’t leave the natural world alone. Assuming our biblical rights of dominion, we must reshape the world in our image. So, on one hand, whales and dolphins can be sleek and cute, the stuff of Flipper and Free Willy. On the other, their intelligence can be used to do our dirty work. If man may be venal and warlike, so, too, must be his animal servants.
There’s a delicate moral dilemma here. We know that these are intelligent animals, with advanced social skills. Bottlenose dolphins have signature whistles that act as “names.” Dolphins can use their sonar to read one another’s physical states and, possibly, emotional moods. Some dolphins and larger whales possess spindle neurons, specialized brain cells found elsewhere only in great apes, elephants and humans, creating the capacity for empathy and self-awareness — and, perhaps, the ability to feel love and loss.
Scientists posit that cetaceans exhibit moral behavior and have a collective sense of one another’s individuality. And as the esteemed scientists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell describe in their forthcoming book, “The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins,” they may be said to possess culture as a result of longstanding social skills, passed down through generations. In their apparently carefree lives, cetaceans appeal to us in our less buoyant existence. Their supposed benevolence is part of our culture, in myths from ancient Greece and from the Haida and Maori people, up to present-day stories of dolphins protecting humans from sharks.
Yet dolphins can be as mindlessly violent as humans. In 2011, I attended the dissection of a harbor porpoise at the Zoological Society of London. The four-foot-long animal looked untouched as it lay on the stainless-steel slab. But as the scientist, Rob Deaville, sliced open the carcass with the skill of a sushi chef, he revealed that its body cavity was flooded with blood.
One side of its rib cage had been smashed, the liver torn in two. The event took on the air of a “C.S.I.” episode, as Mr. Deaville announced the cause of death: butting by a bottlenose dolphin.
Cute Flipper? Cute killer, more like. Other dolphins have been known to take part in sex parties. Caught up in a superpod off New Zealand, I’ve seen dusky dolphins (a southern hemisphere species) mating up to three times in five minutes. Bottlenose dolphins have been filmed appearing to get high after sucking on the toxins of puffer fish.
Many ethicists and environmentalists question the morality of keeping cetaceans in captivity. But if we accept cavorting orcas and dolphins at SeaWorld, then why not working dolphins in the Navy?
In his book, “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier,” Thomas I. White, a professor of business ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, writes that “the military use of dolphins is just as ethically questionable as any other captive program.” To Dr. White, as to some other forward-thinking ethicists and scientists, dolphins are sentient beings, due the rights of a “nonhuman person.” We accept the servitude of domesticated animals, from seeing-eye dogs to horses in Central Park, but don’t cetaceans and apes, by their very genetic closeness to us, demand greater respect — as well as freedom from Arthur C. Clarke’s prospective slavery?
Our objections to the use of dolphins in war may be sentimental, because we project idealized notions of placidity on their perennially smiling faces. We are imposing our own values, good and bad, on wild animals. But if we apprehend that dolphins are moral beings, then might they themselves object to being weapons of war? Perhaps we need to work on our dolphinese.
Philip Hoare, a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Southampton in Britain, is the author of “Leviathan or, The Whale” and, most recently, of “The Sea Inside.”