HomeNewsFictionNonfictioncontact

THE ROSE-TINTED MENAGERIE

1. THE BLOOD-RED MENAGERIE

1.6 The Dolphin Circus


Following P.T. Barnum's ill-fated display of white whales in his New York Museum in 1860, it was not until 1913 that cetaceans were again seen in captivity, this time when C. H. Townsend, curator of the New York Aquarium, stumbled upon the idea exhibiting dolphins as an unbeatable novelty to attract the crowds. Thus on 12 November 1913, five bottlenose dolphins - the first ever to be brought into commercial captivity - were caught in North Carolina and transported on a three day journey to New York. In June 1914 Townsend wrote that there had never been a more successful display in the Aquarium's 12-year history. The last of the dolphins, succumbing to pneumonia, died in 1915 after 21 months in captivity. But it would take another quarter of a century before a captive dolphin would be trained and put through its paces to entertain a human audience. The year 1938 saw the inauguration of Marine Studios in Florida and the arrival of the facility's first bottlenose dolphins. According to anecdotal accounts or stories that have gradually turned to fable with age, the very beginnings of dolphin dressage were conceived here more or less accidentally. During feeding time at Marine Studios, it is said, dolphins gradually fell into the habit of jumping up to catch the fish that were thrown to them, and this miniature spectacle always amused the public, the keepers and curator. Then a year later in 1939, Cecil M. Walker, then responsible for maintenance of the water purification pumps on the night-shift, observed one evening how a dolphin pushed a pelican feather across the surface of the water towards him. "Just for the hell of it" he took the proffered feather and threw it back into the water, whereupon, to his great surprise, the dolphin brought it back again. The game continued with Walker experimenting with a ball, an inner tube of a bicycle, small stones and other objects. As the game took shape with other dolphins joining in the act, it began to resemble the repertoire seen today in every dolphinarium in the world. At least, that's how the story goes, a tale which has its fair share of Hollywood ingredients, even for the humans involved: from the lowly position of night foreman, Walker was quickly promoted to the position of general-director at Marine Studios.

Soon, not only spellbound tourists and day-trippers were beating a path to see the only, the original, the amazing, performing dolphins but also world-renowned scientists, and it is interesting, even amusing, to see how rapidly the notions and "discoveries" of science, blinkered by the pride of human intellect, fall into obsolescence, divorced from a timeless spiritual respect for the sanctity of life. Internationally-respected zoologist Heini Hediger for example, could scarcely contain his enthusiasm for Marine Studios' sensational new animal act. Describing his visit in a 1954 paper entitled Sketches about Animal Psychology in the Zoo and Circus, Hediger enthuses: "The most important in this town situated directly on the sea are two aquaria of distinctly American proportions - hence the biggest in the world - so that those enormous pools are rightly no longer called aquaria but oceanaria." In fact, just one of those "enormous" pools, home to no fewer than 11 dolphins, measured a mere 22.5m in diameter and 3.6m deep - grossly inadequate even by today's standards.

Similarly, a Hediger paper entitled Dressage Experiments With Dolphins, published in 1952, begins by recalling Pliny's fable of a boy who had gained the love of a dolphin by feeding it regularly with bread, and who was carried across the sea every day to school on the animal's back. Hediger notes that scientists have always viewed such stories as lacking any foothold in reality and that they are best left to poets and writers of fairy tales. But 2000 years later, he goes on to say, there is at least a dolphin in Florida which obeys the commands of its trainer and even allows itself to be harnessed to a surf-board. Thus, he concludes, for humans to be carried over the water with the help of a dolphin is today quite feasible. Hediger goes on to record how sea-lion trainer Adolf Frohn was appointed to teach the dolphins their dressage stunts in the "generous facilities" provided by Marine Studios - a pool of about 8m in diameter and about 1.5m deep. It was in this special dressage pool, notes Hediger, that Frohn trained the especially gifted Tursiops truncatus called "Flippy". Reading between the lines of the scientific treatise, one can perceive a subjective struggle between scientific intellect and what could best be described as the human conscience. "But 'Flippy' wasn't a fish," Hediger solemnly declared, "and one nearly had to suppress the question as to whether it was an animal at all, when it was looking at you sideways with a twinkling eye from less than half a meter away." Indeed, if it were not for the intellect's constant calling to heel by scientific rationality, Hediger continued, he might have been tempted to look at the dolphin instead as "an enchanted creature". The same conflict between thought and feeling, the same uncanny, mystical experience of kinship, has haunted many a dolphin trainer, scientist and visiting child. Sadly for humanity, sadly for the dolphin and sadly for the world, the more delicate sense of feeling or intuition is so often regarded as a threat to the intellect that it is either overruled, suppressed or trampled. 'Flippy', Hediger notes, was fed a strictly-weighed portion of 6kg of fish, an amount "determined by the relatively small possibility of movement." Because the pool was so shallow, Hediger blandly recorded, the dolphin had become exposed to the summer sun without adequate protection, the resulting sunburn manifesting itself "in a strong reddening mainly of the light parts of the grey, smooth, plastic-like skin." The scientist could find nothing morally repugnant in the show-biz style of the exhibition. Here at Marine Studios, Hediger commented, it is not a question of "scientific dressage but of show dressage but the fact that even this circus-like dressage can, in principle, be of scientific value cannot be denied."

Back to top