Date
23 September 2017
A bottlenose dolphin was the subject of a language experiment that morphed into a heartbreaking drama 50 years ago. Photo: Reuters
A bottlenose dolphin was the subject of a language experiment that morphed into a heartbreaking drama 50 years ago. Photo: Reuters

Woman and dolphin: A love story

Language is no barrier to love — even the cross-species kind as one animal experiment in the US Virgin Islands showed 50 years ago. 

Over 10 weeks in a flooded house in St Thomas in 1965, neurologist John Lilly oversaw an experiment to teach a bottlenose dolphin called Peter to speak English, the Daily Mail reported Wednesday. As part of the experiment, Lilly’s assistant, Margaret Howe, ate, slept and played with Peter, encouraging him to mimic her words.

The relationship morphed into one that Peter no doubt would have described on his Facebook page as “it’s complicated”.    

The dolphin, the report said, developed a sexual and romantic love for his teacher Howe.

Howe said nothing about the experiment over the next five decades but has broken her silence in a BBC documentary. 

Peter didn’t learn to speak English with his blowhole but he did progress from nibbling on Howe’s toes to jamming himself repeatedly against her leg and making circles around her.

“[Peter] is generally so excited that he cannot control his attitude toward me,” Howe wrote in her notes at the time.

“We have had several long ‘loving’ sessions. The water is deep enough for him to roll over and this he does for tummy rubs. He sleeps just next to my bed.”

They were working through the relationship when the experiment ended and the lab was closed, the report said.

Peter and other dolphins at the lab were moved to a facility in Miami, Florida, where Peter quickly went downhill and “committed suicide by refusing to breathe, and sinking to the bottom of his tank”.

English is not one of the Romance languages and the heartbreaking end to Peter’s life is not how anyone would have wished this drama to play out. What can one say except that everybody was in untested waters and, as it turned out, slightly out of their depth?

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CG/SK

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