I grew up a child of Disney, as have my children. My childhood was populated by Bambi, Dumbo, and a host of other Disney cartoon animals which embodied to me courage, kindness and warm affection. My children have grown up with the next generation of Disneyfied creatures, crabs that sing under the sea and lions that complete the great circle of life. One of Hollywood’s most lasting creations, for both my children and myself, was not a cartoon, but a real animal appearing in as many films as Lassie — Flipper. Flipper is a bottlenose dolphin, a warm-blooded marine mammal with a happy grin that always seems friendly and playful. Up to 12 feet long, bottlenose dolphins are related to whales, but smaller, sleeker and more streamlined, designed for speed and grace in the water. Like a bullet with a smile, Flipper always came swimming speedily to the rescue. All our lives I and my children have known Flipper as a friend, and, reflecting this, swimming with dolphins has been one of our most cherished wishes. Our pretty fantasy bashed into reality this week, when my daughter Caitlin showed me an article about aggressive behavior in dolphins.
The ugly truth has emerged gradually over the last ten years. Starting around 1990 biologists began to look more carefully at dolphins. A lot of dolphins were dying worldwide, and the search for the culprit involved lab work (maybe the killer was a virus) and careful observation of wild dolphins in nature. The first clues that some of the killings were deliberate emerged from studies of harbor porpoises (a smaller close relative of the dolphin) off the coast of Scotland. The dead bodies of five-foot-long adult individuals were being found, mangled in unexpectedly violent ways, with multiple fractures of ribs and spine, and damaged internal organs. Something had literally bashed them to death. The killer wasn’t a boat propeller or fishing net. One of the newly-killed porpoises was found with bloody tooth marks on its flanks — and the bite perfectly matched the 0.45-inch spacing of the teeth of an adult bottlenosed dolphin! Of 105 porpoise postmortems researchers performed on animals killed off the northeast coast of Scotland from 1991 to 1993, fully 42 show clear evidence of dolphin attacks. Two killings by dolphins were even captured on videotape. It was dolphins that were killing the porpoises, big time.
The story gets even worse. As the Scottish researchers continued to monitor the dolphins swimming off their coast, they occasionally found dead dolphin calves, each about the same size as a porpoise. The five they found over the next several years had fractured ribs, ruptured lungs, and dislocated spines. Like the porpoises, the dolphin calves had been bashed to death. In one instance the researchers captured on videotape an adult bottlenose dolphin bashing and butting into the air a calf, bouncing it’s body like a ball — for 53 minutes! What’s going on here? Infanticide is not that rare among mammals. A male lion, when it drives away another male and takes over its pride, will often kill all the cubs as the mother watches — he wants to raise his children, not those of the earlier male. Female dolphins stay sexually inactive for years while tending young, but become sexually receptive within days of loosing a calf. Perhaps the dead dolphin calves were killed by adult male dolphins seeking their mothers as mates. Not a pretty picture, but nature is not always pretty.
It is harder to understand why dolphins kill porpoises. Porpoises don’t eat the same kind of fishes as dolphins, so there is no need for dolphins to kill porpoises to remove potential competitors. Nor do dolphins eat porpoises. Violent uninvited aggression of one species against another is very rare in nature. It is almost unheard of for one mammal to kill another which is neither its competitor nor its prey. Among mammals, dolphins appear to be particularly senseless killers. Boy, did Hollywood get it wrong!
So what do we learn from this? Well, for one thing, I’d be pretty careful about swimming with wild dolphins, an increasingly popular sport. Second, it is instructive to ask how we got it so wrong, so long. The answer, of course, can be seen in our instinctive defense of Flipper: “With that smile, Flipper can’t be a killer!” Conditioned by a lifetime of Disney, we impart to animals our own emotions and feelings. We think of Flipper as friendly and playful because that is how we see him in the movies, and how we want him to be. Nature, however, did not see the movie and does not care what we want. Dolphins are what they are. We can choose to see them, or ignore what they are and see ourselves instead, as Disney does.
I try to explain to my children that we should look at nature for what it is, and not as a mirror of our own feelings. I took Caitlin to the zoo today and we tried to really LOOK at the animals. When you do, you begin to truly see them. They don’t tell us about ourselves, but themselves. The animals in the St Louis Zoo are but a small part of the rich tapestry that is life on earth. Violence and killing is one part of this tapestry, and should not surprise us. But it is only one part. Don’t shut your eyes to nature, like Disney does. Disneyfication of nature is not loving nature, but ignoring it. Don’t look back on your lost friendship with Flipper with regret. Go to the zoo and really look. A delicious diversity awaits you.