Flipper was my hero. When I was about twelve, I became obsessed with dolphins — due in part to the TV show, which I only got to watch periodically, because we had very limited networks in the UP. The whole time I was growing up, we had CBS and NBC and that was it.
But there was one episode where he rammed a shark, which was very impressive.
Flipper was a badass.
Beyond that, it was the indelible smile that attracted me. The laughing, happy demeanor cemented itself in my brain. How magical it was to be a creature so innately filled with joy.
I read everything about dolphins that I could get my hands on. I wanted to know them. I learned of their tactile skin and their kinship, and their playfulness and care for their young. I read how in captivity the males could be dangerous to get in the water with. I learned they have more condensed muscle power than any other creature. I learned the babies have to be born tail-first. I learned that their sonar can look right through a person. I read Karen Pryor’s Lads Before the Wind in the 70’s, long before clicker training took off. In the late 80’s, when it came to Ann Arbor, I seized the method and called it my own. I have trained dogs, cats, horses, fish, a goat, a pig, an arctic fox all with the clicker. I have dolphins to thank. In that regard, their time in captivity has helped domestic animals immeasurably.
Little did I know.
News of Taiji slaughters leaked internationally very briefly when I was a kid; maybe around college age, and then National Geographic did a story on it in the 80’s. Not too much attention was paid to these stories on a national scale. But I remembered them.
When The Cove came out, I couldn’t watch it. I still have never seen it. I have seen a few photos, short clips and read enough to know that I should not, should never watch. The images will wreck me.
I’m a chicken.
The one video I have seen is horrific enough to induce nightmares, and yet it’s not bloody. I had heard of an incident where a Risso’s dolphin threw himself at the feet of Ric O’Barry, who was instrumental in making the film. O’Barry was standing on the shore watching the slaughter and the dolphin, a young male, came to him. I had heard this story, and wrote it off as journalistic drama.
But while working on this article about O’Barry’s imprisonment in Taiji, I used that footage and watched it.
For those of us who read animals, the message is clear. The dolphin is asking for help. He is in anguish. His family is dying. He hasn’t been injured yet, but he is going through an emotional, watery hell.
I think of this scene, and my eyes start watering.
So I therefore have tremendous respect for Ric O’Barry, who was Flipper’s trainer, who had the epiphany during the 60’s that holding whales in captivity was horribly, horribly wrong.
O’Barry is an empathic, which makes his dedication to dolphins that much more special. To those of us who care, he is the sacrificial lamb. If I can’t even get through a movie, or a video, how has he endured years of this? And yet, the guy just doesn’t quit. After spending 19 days in a Tokyo jail, he’s been booted out of the country, but he’s still trying to get back in.
It boggles the mind.
So, I have a new hero.
In the meantime, I hunker back in my artistic hole, painting dolphins and hoping that my love for them will shine through, and inspire others to see the magic in them. Maybe someone will be reached. Maybe we will change the world.