Peter, a young dolphin, was brought together with Margaret Howe Lovatt to cohabitate in order to learn English. It’s an experiment that began in the 1960s when Peter the dolphin was six years old. At this maturing age, the young dolphin developed sexual urges, desires that Margaret relieved later on in the experiment to keep them from interfering with the lessons. It’s a subject that has once again exploded onto the internet and public eye. A new BBC documentary, The Girl Who Talked To Dolphins, airs Tuesday and has brought a good deal of media attention to the NASA-funded dolphin experiment.
That sounds crazy, right? Especially the sexual part. In fact, the experiment was not so odd considering the times. In the 1960s it was believed that brain size was a main factor in intelligence. Big brain equaled big potential. Scientist Dr. John Lilly first became interested in dolphin research in 1949 when a beached pilot whale came ashore on the coast near his home in Massachusetts. He continued to research marine intelligence with his wife Mary Lilly, coming across dolphins during a trip to the Caribbean in the 1950s. At this point in time dolphins were considered a nuisance to fisherman who competed for the same catches as the dolphins. The Marine Studios in Miami was among the first to showcase dolphins in captivity and the many tricks they could perform.
Except that studying the brains of dolphins quickly became a difficult ordeal for both animal and researcher. Putting a dolphin under anesthesia would stop the animal’s breathing. Unable to use equipment to track dolphin brain readings, Dr. John Lilly turned to observations. The key observation was made by Mary Lilly, who heard a dolphin trying to mimic the pitch of Dr. John and his assistant as they were in conversation.
The ground breaking theory that dolphins were actively trying to communicate with humans set off a lifelong project. They gained funding from NASA and put together a research facility focusing on teaching speech to dolphins. It’s a facility that caught young Margaret Howe Lovatt’s attention. What was at first interest became complete captivation when she visited in the 1960s.
Margaret had always had a fascination for animals and their relation with humans. She came unannounced to Dr. John Lilly’s facility and ran into director Gregory Bateson. “Why did you come here?” he asked Lovatt. Her boldness gained her an entrance and Bateson observed a natural connection between Lovatt and the dolphins. In the coming years Margaret became an active member of the research team.
“There were three dolphins,” remembers Lovatt. “Peter, Pamela and Sissy. Sissy was the biggest. Pushy, loud, she sort of ran the show. Pamela was very shy and fearful. And Peter was a young guy. He was sexually coming of age and a bit naughty.” She lived with Peter over the extended experiment. In terms of the “sexual” relation Lovatt said, “Again, it was sexual on his part. It was not sexual on mine. Sensuous, perhaps,” Margaret explained. “Like an itch. Just get rid of that. We’ll scratch it and we’ll be done. Move on.”
Along with the strange and criticized aspects of the dolphin experiment there was a good deal of emotional attachment built between Lovatt and Peter. When the dolphin project lost funding and the two were separated, Lovatt was able to cope and move on. Peter, tragically, was unable to.