Dolphins are known for being one of the smartest and most capable species out there. In fact, they are even able to educate other dolphins based on their own experiences, and then pass down that knowledge to their offspring. This is incredible when you think about the fact that we originally thought that humans were the only animals capable of this behavior.
But, sadly, dolphin intelligence can also lead to some more grim behavior, as it turns out.
Flipper was a TV show in the 1960s about Ranger Porter Ricks, his two sons - Bud and Sandy - and their pet dolphin named Flipper in Coral Key Park, Florida. Flipper is an incredibly intelligent dolphin who assists Porter Ricks with rescues at sea and watches after Bud and Sandy.
Flipper was actually played by five completely different dolphins throughout the show’s lifespan. The most famous and commonly used dolphins on the show were named Kathy and Susie.
Kathy, a bottlenose dolphin, passed away in 1970 in her trainer Richard O’Barry’s arms. She swam toward him and finally sunk to the bottom of the tank. At the end of her career, Kathy was put into a small, isolated tank at the Miami Seaquarium where many believe she was depressed. O’Barry firmly believes that Kathy had committed suicide.
O’Barry was responsible for capturing and training all five dolphins on the set of Flipper. Although his career had revolved around dolphins in captivity, Kathy’s death had a profound impact on him. He shifted his career focus dramatically toward anti-captivity activism.
“I knew she was tired of suffering,” said O’Barry about Kathy’s last days at the Miami Seaquarium. “She was living a miserable life and she was tired of being miserable.” According to O’Barry, she died when she stopped breathing by choice, which dolphins are fully capable of doing. O’Barry fully believes that her death was a suicide due to her miserable living conditions.
Unfortunately, O’Barry does feel some responsibility for Kathy’s death. “Of course,” he said when asked if he felt guilty. “I’m the guy who captured her. She’d have been better off if we left her alone.”
Just two days after Kathy’s heartbreaking death, O’Barry was arrested for attempting to free a different dolphin from captivity. After he was released from jail, he stopped training dolphins altogether to focus solely on activism. He says that if it weren’t for Kathy’s death, he would probably be running his own dolphin sanctuary by now and making a few million dollars a year.
Since then, O’Barry has dedicated his life to ending the captivity of whales and dolphins. He first introduced the idea of dolphin suicide in the Oscar award winning documentary The Cove about the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan.
Although there are many skeptics out there who do not believe that non-human animals could be capable of committing suicide, O’Barry is sticking with his story. “I lived with her for seven years. She committed suicide. She died in my arms and I experienced that,” he said.
O’Barry believes that even paying to see a show at Seaworld or swimming with dolphins in captivity is harmful to their well-being. “We love dolphins like they’re our family - I hear that a lot,” said O’Barry. “Really? You lock your family up in a room and force them to do tricks before they eat their dinner?”
O’Barry also believes it’s pretty obvious why dolphins would suffer living in tiny tanks. “The dolphin is a sonic creature,” he said. “Its primary sense is sound. You put one in a bare concrete box with music blaring and people shouting, of course it’s stressful! If people could see them in the wild, they’d never buy a ticket to a dolphin show.”
Dolphins behave extraordinarily different in the wild than they do in captivity. In the wild they’re free to swim great distances and interact with other dolphins, whereas in captivity, they’re trained to perform in front of audiences and beg for fish. As you can probably imagine, the latter isn’t a very fulfilling life.
Dr. Ann Weaver, who studies dolphins in Tampa Bay, believes that while non-human animals can be depressed, she doesn’t believe that they have the capability to commit suicide. “I think everything they are designed to be is to keep on keeping on. So I think suicide is the curse of the human consciousness, but not other consciousnesses. I don’t believe they give up and that’s what suicide requires,” said Dr. Weaver.
Dr. Lori Marino, on the other hand, believes that it is certainly possible that dolphins are self-aware enough to commit suicide. Dr. Marino is a neuroscientist and marine mammal specialist at Emory University. “I think the idea that other animals can’t commit suicide because they are hardwired to live is very old-fashioned,” she said.
Dolphin and human brains are actually quite similar - both are fully capable of experiencing emotions and dolphins have been shown to possess a high level of cognitive processes..
Dr. Marino detailed another type of dolphin suicide brought on by living in captivity called “failure to thrive,” in which the dolphin gradually stops eating and socializing. “There are plenty of examples of a loss of will to live,” she said. “Their immune system goes down. It crashes. They die.”
We can’t know for certain whether dolphins like Kathy intentionally committed suicide - after all, we can’t simply ask them about their intentions. Regardless, if you were impacted by this story, consider not visiting Seaworld or other places where dolphins and whales are kept in captivity.
Share this story with your friends to fight against dolphin captivity - the dolphins will thank you!