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Home » Literature Archives » FLUKES OF CLAY: Deconstructing the Heroic Dolphin Image

Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(1 Oct 2008)

By Ming Zhen Shakya

"So this is what hell is. I never would have believed it. You remember: the fire and brimstone and the torture chambers! Ah.. What a joke! There's no need for torture chambers: hell is other dolphins."

-- Garcin, in the cetacean version of Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit

The recent discovery that dolphins commit infanticide for sport and gang up on smaller porpoises for the pleasure of beating them to death seems incomprehensible to us. We have so thoroughly anthropomorphized these animals that it is easier for us to imagine that a council of responsible dolphins is meeting now in the attempt to put a tourniquet on the reputation blood-loss. We can hear bottlenose flaks insist that they should spin the bad news by citing the analogous behavior of our street gangs, serial killers, and hunters who use pigeons for target practice. The behavior is bad, but aberrant - the normal dolphin is a decent, law abiding citizen!

The emotional reaction we feel is the evidence of archetypal projection. The unconscious survival instinct involved here is the Hero, a four stage projection, the first three stages of which - the trickster. the superman, and the human hero - are intended to inspire us to be better and more accomplished persons as we grow into adulthood. Once we reach adulthood, strong emotions in these three phases are usually dangerous and deluding.

The wonder is that many of us have not quite let go of our childhood attachments to dolphins. For the last fifty years we have ingenuously pushed this animal through the Hero's trickster, superman, and human stages; and while we often do not hesitate to project the fourth stage, the Savior, upon other human beings, looking to a dolphin for spiritual salvation has fortunately been a bit beyond purview. Having exhausted the dolphin's Heroic repertoire, we are now doing to the animal what we usually do when we irrationally inflate a person, place, or thing to its farthest extreme of adulation: we demonize, despise, reject, or ignore.

The trickster is a mischievous creature, a Bugs Bunny or Bart Simpson, who makes mistakes but has a good heart and more or less good intentions. We tell children about these creatures to reassure them, as they try to walk, talk, or do elementary schoolwork, that even though they may make mistakes they are still loved.

The dolphin went through the initial trickster phase during the fearful days of the Cold War with all those nuclear weapons that defied counting. Dolphins were the small lit candle that kept us from cursing humanity's depressing darkness. Fascination precedes projection, and so it was in a 1957 feature film, Boy On A Dolphin, that our interest was piqued. We gained a sense of security from meeting a creature that had been fondly regarded by the Greeks for several millennia. It was they who named it delphys for womb, a reference to its mammalian status. Delphys was also the origin of the name Delphi, the oracle sacred to Apollo whose symbol was the dolphin. In the film, the dolphin, alone, might not have attracted enough attention to effect the required fascination; but its cause was aided by the oddity of casting Alan Ladd, who was 5'4" tall as the romantic leading man opposite Sophia Loren who was 5'8" tall. Everybody knew that when they were photographed side by side, Ladd was sanding on a box; and when they were filmed strolling on the beach, Loren was actually walking in a trench that had been dug for her. Yet, there was a hopeful kind of chemistry between the two stars that said "anything is possible."

The salutary effects of dolphins on the cold war psyche did not go unnoticed by Hollywood; and after the success of the underwater TV series, Sea Hunt (1957-1961), a female dolphin named Mitzie created the role of Flipper, the eponymous hero of a 1963 feature film. TV's Rifleman, Chuck Connors, was cast as the father of a boy who befriends a harpooned dolphin that he has rescued and named Flipper. The mischief that the two new friends get into threatens to cost the father his job; and he decides to sever their bond of friendship. But, as movie plots go, Flipper valiantly chases off hungry sharks who intend to dine upon some humans. All is forgiven. He is still loved.

A disturbing incident occurred during production: the filmmakers, wanting to avoid paying for an expensive special effect, deliberately harpooned Mitzie's unfortunate stunt double. In response to a public outcry, the producer gave the animal to Dr. John Lilly, compadre of counter-culture enthusiasts Timothy Leary, Baba Ram Dass, Werner Erhard, Abby Hoffman, and others. Lilly had been investigating the nature of consciousness, its altered states, and, in his Research Institute in the Virgin Islands, communication with animals. According to Lilly, the wounded dolphin shunned all contact with humans until he gave it LSD. The drug proved to be an ice-breaker, and the animal managed to survive it, Lilly, and the wound. Lilly's books about his experiences with dolphins influenced the film, The Day of the Dolphin, that was later made of a french novel, A Sentient Animal, by Robert Merle.

The public was so smitten with Mitzie-Flipper and her entourage of stunt dolphins that a 1964 sequel, Flipper's New Adventures, with actor Brian Kelly replacing Chuck Connors, was immediately produced.

TV followed with a weekly show called Flipper and for the three years it ran (1964-1967) a nation that could not remember the words to the national anthem sang in perfect unison, "They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning. No one you see, is smarter than he."

Flipper was no longer a clever animal, he was a supermammal, a little more intelligent and a lot more ethical than the average human being. As if he had come from one of Krypton's oceans, Flipper was half-dolphin, half-god. His abilities naturally inspired kids to want to imitate him; and it would not be surprising to learn that many of Australia's and the U.S.'s great Olympic swimmers were once fans of the show. An accomplished linguist and a one-dolphin police force, Flipper solved people's problems and saved people's lives. He (actually a female named Susie) was the perfect role model for growing kids. Curiously, male dolphins were so scarred they were deemed esthetically unacceptable, yet nobody seemed to wonder about the scarring, or, for that matter, about the penile erections males got at the most inopportune times. It is the nature of projection that we are blind to the faults of the one we are idolizing; and the producers intended to insure that the image was not disturbed by facts. Male dolphins, always randy and often scarred to the point of deformity, were simply replaced by females.

As most super heroes usually do, Flipper eventually romanced several dolphins, even an albino dolphin who was his baby's mama. Another femme fatale named Lorelei (like Lana or Lois) snared him by the show's end. It was time for Flipper to become an outstanding human being, the kind of hero who had "the right stuff."

In 1972's feature film, The Day of the Dolphin, George C. Scott was cast as a scientist who trained dolphins not only to understand English, but to speak it. (We try but cannot obliterate the memory of George C. Scott cooing to one of his dolphin disciples, "Pa loves Fa.") As to plot, some nasty people planned to assassinate the president, who was lounging on his yacht, by strapping explosives to a trained dolphin who would, without benefit of religious conviction, become a suicide bomber. The U.S. Navy was already training dolphins for military missions. The public, fed up with doomsday scenarios, said, "Don't even think about it!" and forced the Navy to promise officially not to include suicide missions in the curriculum.

The dolphin had gone from trickster to superman, and then, as a kind of Navy Seal, to the human stage of development. How noble this creature had become! Japanese fishermen who killed dolphins that competed for available fish were vilified. Tuna fish companies printed on their labels that dolphins were not killed in the harvesting of tuna. Football teams were named for them. All across the planet captive dolphins were trained to do tricks for paying audiences; and hotels advertised a special inducement to patrons: they could swim with dolphins in the hotel's pool.

In 1996, a remake of the original Flipper feature film starred Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame as the coast-dwelling uncle of a troubled inner-city teenager sent to him for rehabilitation. Flipper's IQ and altruism increased to Dr. Albert Schweitzer's range; but the teenager, whose wardrobe proclaimed his undying devotion to rock and roll bands, was singularly unimpressed until the obligatory happy ending. The film intended to appeal to children of all ages, but this would have required three separate stages of the hero to be projected on Flipper simultaneously; and not even our wonder-dolphin could accommodate this. (The film was not well received especially since parents were less than enthusiastic about having their children watch Flipper's mother being shot and his pelican friend swilling beer.)

Had it different vocal cords, the dolphin might have succeeded in becoming a guru of no small significance, perhaps even a Zen master whose Dharma talks we could attend. Alas! the dolphin could not communicate well enough. The fantasy animal had reached its fashionable "decadent phase" limit, and just as the death knell sounded when bell-bottom trousers had expanded to barrel-size and dress shoulder pads had become suitable only for NFL use, the bell tolled for the dolphin. The natural revulsion of esthetic fatigue let the worms in. There was nothing left to arouse any interest in dolphins except the always interesting prurient demonization. Facts that had been present - but were rendered invisible by projecting heroic qualities upon them - now became the subject of scientific investigaion.

Scientists reported on dolphin promiscuity. As if they were Vatican-sent Devil's Advocates trying to dig up dirt on a candidate for canonization, the iconoclasts told a scandalized public about dolphins' unbridled sexuality. Dolphins were not only sex crazy, they were violent gang rapists - which accounted for all those scars. They were so uncontrollably sexual they indulged in a variety of perversions, and even resorted to homosexuality, including lethal fellatio.

An episode of King of the Hill showed Hank being sexually pursued by an amorous male dolphin in a country club pool. And, aside from their sexual sins, dolphins were not nice creatures, as LIsa Simpson found out when she set one free from captivity. He led a massive pod of dolphins to turn the tables on Springfield; and while the victorious dolphins enjoyed the high and dry, the Simpsons, et al, were reduced to sloshing around in salt water.

There were attempts to restore the dolphins' good name. Almost as a rebuttal of Desmond Morris' study of man, The Naked Ape, scientists noted that dolphins were just as naked as man. While ape evolution did not provide for the loss of body hair regardless of climate, supersexed man and dolphin did lose body hair which facilitated, among other advantages, direct access to sensual skin. Compared to man, apes have comparatively small brains, whereas the large neocortex of the cetacean was virtually identical to the human; and the increased size of both was likely due to the challenges presented by "sex for pleasure only" activity. Male apes mount the female from behind during copulation. Humans and dolphins are alone among mammals by copulating face to face. Desmond Morris noted, "It could be said that the advance of civilization has not so much moulded modern sexual behaviour, as that sexual behaviour has moulded the shape of civilization." He ccncluded, "Clearly, the naked ape is the sexiest primate alive." We wondered how dolphins registered on the sex scale.

There was speculation about the common ancestry, genetic links, or parallel development of humans and dolphins. It had long been known that cetaceans retain vestigial fingers and toes from their original state as land mammals, but that dolphins actually used tools (sponges to protect their noses) was something new. Dolphins have a complicated communication system and can comprehend abstract concepts. Further, unlike most animals, when a dolphin looks at a mirror, he can recognize himself. And finally, researchers suspected that a peculiar section of the dolphin brain just might be used to attain ego transcendence!

But the public's love affair with Flipper had cooled and no one could rehabilitate the animal. Toddlers and young children had new TV role models, and older kids were into interactive video games. Women still retained a sentimental regard for the dolphin, but the human male began to feel contempt that showed itself in ugly ways. The National Geographic reported on several cases. A woman who was on a private boating picnic with her family saw a dolphin swimming close by. She obtained fresh fish from a bait shop and then began to tap on the side of her boat to attract the dolphin's attention. When the animal investigated, she and her children gave it fish. Two men, who were drinking beer in another nearby boat, also tapped their boat summoning the dolphin, but when it came, instead of giving it a fish, they threw beer in its face and slapped it. Back and forth the animal went between the boats, responding to the summoning taps, until, anger at the men's repeated slapping caused it to lose its temper. The woman, who had gotten into the water to interact more closely with the animal, was the only human upon whom it could vent its anger. She suddenly found herself being attacked. The dolphin did not attempt to batter her, instead it seized her leg and pulled her under the water. Fortunately she was a strong swimmer and her husband, seeing her distress, jumped in, striking the animal's head, and it released her leg. She required fifty stitches to close the lacerations. In Brazil, two men who were sitting on the beach drinking beer and eating ice cream, noticed a dolphin swimming close to shore. Carrying their beer and ice cream, they waded into the water and began to play with the animal. They tried to mount it and ride on its back and when that failed, they poured beer and stuck popsicle sticks down its blow hole. The dolphin reacted by whacking one of the men with its flukes. Despite medical treatment, the man died of massive internal injuries. At interactive "petting zoo" type dolphin pools, people are permitted to feed and touch the animals. The National Geographic showed one man dropping a cigarette into a feeding dolphin's open mouth.

On and on the good comparisons and the evil accusations went.

In 1996 and 1997, a group of baby dolphins washed up onto the Virginia coast. At first look, scientists found the cause of death puzzling. The bodies were intact and aside from a few bite marks the animals seemed to have been in good health when they died. Not until autopsy did it become clear that the animals had died of an incredible array of internal injuries. Simultaneously, in Scotland, scientists were puzzling over the bodies of porpoises and young dolphins that had washed up on their shores. The same trauma was evident. What could have caused such violence? Both sides rounded up the usual suspects: the U.S. military and the oil industry.

It soon became obvious that the usual suspects had to be ruled out, suspecting the U.S. Navy for the Virginia deaths did not explain the porpoises and dolphins found on the Scottish coast; and suspecting North Sea oil drilling of being implicated in the Scottish deaths did not explain the Virginia deaths. Autopsy eliminated a virus or other infectious agent. Killing baby dolphins in order to bring the mother into estrus, something apes would do, was also ruled out, there being no such incentive for inter-species killing such as porpoises; and female dolphins, like humans, engage in sexual activity during pregnancy. Since the animals were killed but not eaten, predation was also discounted as a cause. Killing another species that competes for food was also eliminated since the dolphins and porpoises had essentially different diets, The unthinkable began to be thought when a Scottish researcher stood helplessly and watched an adult dolphin batter a calf for fifty-three terrible minutes. Tourists who had videotaped what they thought were playful dolphins brought forward tapes which showed that what had been thought to be exhuberant tossing into the air of the young dolphins was actually lethal battery. And so, after everyone was absolutely sure, the scientific reports were issued. Many readers responded with contempt for these gang raping, baby killing creatures.

Dolphin aggression and infanticide cannot be new. Noticing it for what it is, and not for what we in our emotional states imagine it to be, is new. If dolphin evolution provides for such aggression, then that is what it is and it is neither good nor evil. Applying criminal terms to dolphin behavior - as if these animals were breaking our laws - is absurd.

But not only have we tended to criminalize their behavior, we victimize them with our own criminal behavior. We see in many of the marine exhibits that permit dolphin and human interaction that people often regard a dolphin's open mouth as a trash receptacle into which they can toss cigarette butts, cans and other refuse as well as an assortment of junk food. The natural diet of dolphins is live fish and squid, not french fries, old dead fish, and Marlboros. They evolved having an ocean to live in, not a confined pool of often stagnant water. In captivity these animals develop ulcers or fatal responses to ingesting toxic or injurious objects, and their life expectancy is much reduced. Even land animals in zoos, protected by high walls, are not, as we saw in San Francisco, safe from being tormented by human visitors. And naturally, when the animal defensively reacts, the "dumb" animal is blamed.

We see the identical human response to religious leaders. We idolize a guru, evangelist, or master, totally oblivious to his human nature. We project the salvific hero onto him and he becomes a god. And as if those idealized qualities can adhere to us by association, we wear his insignia. If he is accused of sin, we automatically accuse the accuser of even worse sins. And then, when all the fantasies have finally dissipated and we are bored with tedious routine, we begin to demonize our idol and cast about for a new hero to worship. Anyone who occupies stage-center is automatically a target for projection or transference. The people who so readily demonize or idolize human beings are the same people whose emotional immaturity clears a path for charlatans.

Projecting an archetype, especially the human aspect of the Hero archetype, is one of the most advantageous emotional connections a young person can have. Regardless of why a teenager admires a musician, scientist, athlete, artist, architect, or any honorable professional person, that admiration evolves into inspiration which is actualized as motivation. The archetype furnishes the energy to study and practice in order to emulate and even to exceed the Hero's contribution to civilization. The danger in projecting the Hero upon religious leaders is that the quality that elevates them to prominence is not one that can be objectively demonstrated. Walking on fire or sleeping on a bed of nails does not support a man's claim to piety. It is showmanship just as a good sermon is good drama. And who knows what a man who appears to be praying is actually thinking? A young pianist can tell immediately if his hero has lost his touch. The music is the proof, a product that can be evaluated objectively. It is the same with all other heroes, excepting the religious. They alone are privy to their true designs. A devotee may give his time and wealth in the belief that his guru is genuine. He loses much more than time and wealth if he discovers that his hero is a fraud. He loses his faith.

The Buddha taught that when we are angry with a man we must give back to him his humanity. In order to do that, we have to come to terms, cooly and rationally, with our own humanity. We are not perfect creatures. The act of growing up is a series of emotional involvements. And for as long as we persist in getting emotionally involved in the people, places, and things of the material world, we are locked in childhood, regardless of our chronological age.

The goal of Zen is stated most succinctly in the Mundaka Upanishad. "Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the Immortal Self are perched on the branches of the self-same tree. The former eats of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes."

When we transcend ego consciousness, we can enjoy Amitabha's Infinite Light and calmly observe the world, giving human beings back their humanity... and while we're at it, giving dolphins back their dolphinity.

Humming Bird
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