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The Dark Side of Dolphins

July 6, 1999

One of man’s favorite animals is the dolphin. This sportive sea mammal has long enjoyed better press than, say, Fred Astaire. In France it was a symbol of royalty; Shakespeare uses it as a symbol of aquatic grace and beauty. Legends of its beneficence to shipwrecked sailors have circulated since ancient Greece.

Movies and documentaries portray dolphins as high-IQ and human-friendly critters, possibly communicating in their own special language. Dolphins have even been described as ”highly evolved spiritual beings.“ Environmentalists want to protect it against the tuna industry (though killing the poor tuna is okay).

But the dolphin’s lucky streak may be coming to an end. William J. Broad reports in the New York Times that the lovable dolphin has an ”unexplained darker side.“

It seems there is credible testimony and evidence that dolphins have a mean streak. They kill porpoises and even dolphin calves; there are pathetic stories of dead porpoises and baby dolphins washing up on the coast of Virginia, their lifeless bodies bearing telltale teeth-marks and injuries. Untamed dolphins have been known to bite humans.

[Breaker quote: The Nobel Savage of the sea]It has reached the point where the federal government has mounted a campaign to warn us against the dangers of wild dolphins. Such warnings are presumably authorized by the Interstate Commerce Clause, and next we can expect a federal campaign to observe young dolphins for the purpose of spotting the early warning signs.

Nobody can explain why dolphins display aggressive behavior, particularly against their own young; though there are mutterings about some ”evolutionary“ reason for it, it appears to be irrational, serving no survival purpose. Unlike most mammals, dolphins don’t eat what they kill (though they do eat squid and fish for nourishment). They seem to be driven by what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ”motiveless malignity,“ battering smaller creatures, smashing their skulls and vertebrae, and biting them to death for the fun of it.

”Infanticide is common in nature,“ Mr. Broad notes. ”Females kill their young when food is scarce and male lions and bears, for example, sometimes kill the young of a female taken as a new mate, giving them a reproductive and evolutionary edge.“ Such animals must be pretty smart if they grasp the concept of evolution.

But of course the fact that other mammals kill their young doesn’t make it right for dolphins to do it. This is the old ”everybody does it“ excuse. ”Nature red in tooth and claw ...“

”We have such a benign image of dolphins,“ says Dr. Dale J. Dunn, a veterinary pathologist. ”So finding evidence of violence is disturbing.“ Yes, and sad. All of us like to think of the dolphin as our friend; now we’re told that its smile is hypocritical, like that of the wretched crocodile or the president of the United States.

The dolphin has been taking us for a ride. But in fairness, we’ve wanted to be fooled. The benign animal, infused with evolutionary wisdom, has replaced the noble savage in the sentimental mythology that perennially asks why civilized human beings can’t just return to Nature. Illusions about Nature are of a piece with liberal illusions about human nature and the possibility of universal peace and brotherhood.

For some animal lovers, man suffers by comparison with beasts. In the words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: ”Four legs good, two legs bad.“ (Many would add: ”No legs best of all.“)

For thousands of years, Nature has been something human beings have yearned to get the hell out of. Illusions about Nature’s benignity arose only after the escape was complete, and people could visit a safely contained parcel of Nature — in the zoo, the park, or the aquarium — without being at her mercy. In confinement, dangerous beasts became harmless, observable, even lovable. Tenderness replaced terror.

Animal life does offer valuable intimations of human nature, but these aren’t entirely encouraging. Gorilla colonies, for instance, don’t roll out the red carpet for human visitors; it took Diane Fossey months to earn the grudging trust of the mighty apes she studied. The Ku Klux Klan would have shown more hospitality.

Broadly speaking, animals are violent, predatory, xenophobic, possessive, and lacking in compassion. We owe them no apologies. Besides, many of them taste good.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission of Universal Press Syndicate