Dolphinophilia

Art by Dr Louzou.

[…] by common accord they glide towards one another underwater, the female shark using its fins, Maldoror cleaving the waves with his arms; and they hold their breath in deep veneration, each one wishing to gave for the first time upon the other, his living portrait. When they are three yards apart they suddenly and spontaneously fall upon one another like two lovers and embrace with dignity and gratitude, clasping each other as tenderly as brother and sister. Carnal desire follows this demonstration of friendship. Two sinewy thighs press tightly against the monster’s viscous flesh, like two leeches; and arms and fins are clasped around the beloved object, while their throats and breasts soon form one glaucous mass amid the exhalations of the seaweed; amidst the tempest which was continuing to rage; by the light of lightning-flashes; with the foaming waves for marriage-bed; borne by an undersea current and rolling on top of one another down into the unknown deeps, they joined in a long, chaste and ghastly coupling!… At last I had found one akin to me… from now on I was no longer alone in life…! Her ideas were the same as mine… I was face to face with my first love!

I always loved this sulfurous description of the intercourse between Maldoror and a shark, found in the second chant of Lautréamont’s masterpiece.
It came back to mind when a friend recently suggested I look up Malcolm Brenner. You know you’ve found an interesting guy, when Wikipedia introduces him as an “author, journalist, and zoophile“.
Malcolm, it seems, has a thing for dolphins.

Now, zoophilia is a very delicate topic — I tried to address it in this post (Italian only) — because it doesn’t only touch on sensitive areas of sexuality, but it also concerns animal rights. I’m returning on the subject in order to tell two very different stories, which I find particularly remarkable: they are both about sexual encounters between humans and dolphins.
The first one is, indeed, Brennan’s.

I advise you to invest 15 minutes of your time and watch the extraordinary Dolphin Lover, embedded below, which chronicles the unconventional love story between Malcom and a female dolphin named Dolly.
The merit of this short documentary lies in the sensitivity with which it approaches its subject: a man who was abused at a tender age, still visibly marked by what he believes has been a wonderful sentimental and spiritual connection with the animal.
Viewing the video certainly poses an intriguing variety of questions: besides the intrinsic problems of zoophilia (the likelihood of inter-species love, the validity of including zoophiliac tendencies within a pathological spectrum, the issue of consent in animals), some daring points are made, such as the parallellism that Malcom puts forward with inter-racial marriages. “150 years ago, black people were considered degenerate subspecies of the human being, and at the time miscegenation was a crime in many states, as today inter-species sex or bestiality is a crime in many states. And I’m hoping that in a more enlightened future zoophilia will be no more regarded as controversial or harmful than interracial sex is today.

The documentary, and Brenner’s book Wet Goddess (2009), caused some stir, as you would expect. “Glorifying human sexual interactions with other species is inappropriate for the health and well being of any animal. It puts the dolphin’s own health and social behavioral settings at risk”, said expert Dr. Hertzing to the Huff Post.

But if you think the love story between Malcom and Dolly is bizarre, there’s at least another one that surpasses it in weirdness. Let me introduce you to Margaret Lovatt.

Margaret Lovatt. Foto: Matt Pinner/BBC

When she was younger, Margaret — who has no inclination or interest in zoophilia at all — was the target of a male dolphin’s erotic attention. And there would be nothing surprising in this: these mammals are notorious for their sexual promiscuity with trainers and other humans who are swimming with them. At times, they even get aggressive in their sexual advances (proving, if there ever was any need to, that consent is a stricly human concern).

In other words, the fact that a dolphin tried to hit on her is anything but unusual. But the context in which this happened is so delightfully weird, and her story so fascinating, that it deserves to be told.

Virgin Islands, early 1960s.
Doctor John C. Lilly was at the peak of his researches (which, many decades later, earned him a way cooler Wiki description than Brennan’s). This brilliant neuroscientist had already patented several manometers, condensers and medical meters; he had studied the effects of high altitude on brain physiology; he had created a machine to visualize brain activity through the use of electrodes (this kind of stimulation, still used today, is called “Lilly’s wave”). Intrigued by psychoanalisis, he also had already abandoned more conventional areas of scientific investigation to invent sensory deprivation tanks.


Built in 1954 and initally intended as a way to study brain neurophysiology in the absence of external stimuli, isolation tanks had unexpectedly turned out to be an altered-state-inducing tool, prompting a sort of deep and meditative trance. Lilly began to see them as spiritual or psychic vessels: “I made so many discoveries that I didn’t dare tell the psychiatric group about it at all because they would’ve said I was psychotic. I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe.” This discovery led to the second part of his career, that saw him become an explorer of consciousness.

The early Sixties were also the time when John Lilly began to experiment with LSD, took interest in aliens and… in dolphins.

The scientist was convinced that these mammals were extremly intelligent, and he had discovered that they seemed able to replicate some human sounds. Wouldn’t it be nice, Lilly thought,if we could communicate with cetaceans? What enlightening concepts would their enormous brains teach us? He published his ideas in Man and Dolphin (1961), which instantly became a best-seller; in the book he prophetized a future in which dolphins would widen our perspective on history, philosophy and even world politics (he was confident a Cetacean consulting Seat could be established at the United Nations).


Lilly’s next step was to raise funds for a project aimed at teaching dolphins to speak English.
He tried to involve NASA and the Navy — as you do, right? —, and succeded. Thus Lilly founded the Communication Research Institute, a marine secret laboratory on the caraibic island of St. Thomas.

This is the context in which, in 1964, our Margaret began working with Peter, one of the three dolphins being studied at Lilly’s facility. Margaret moved in to live inside the dolphinarium for three months, in contact with Peter for six days a week. Here she gave English lessons to the animal, for instance teaching him how to articulate the words “Hello Margaret”.
‘M’ was very difficult […]. I worked on the ‘M’ sound and he eventually rolled over to bubble it through the water. That ‘M’, he worked on so hard.
But Peter also showed to be curious about many other things: “He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.

Spending so much time on intimate terms with the dolphin introduced Lovatt to the cetacean’s sexual needs: “Peter liked to be with me. He would rub himself on my knee, or my foot, or my hand.” At that point, in order not to interrupt their sessions, Margaret began to manually satisfy Peter’s necessities, as they arose. “I allowed that. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn’t rough. It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch – just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. […] It wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.

As months went by, John Lilly gradually lost interest in dolphins. He increasingly committed himself to his scientific research on psychedelics, at the time of great interest for the Government, but this eventually became a personal rather than a professional interest:  as recalled by a friend, “I saw John go from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy.”

Psychedelic counter-culture icons: Ginsberg, Leary & Lilly.

The lab lost its fundings, the dolphins were moved to another aquarium in Miami, and Margaret didn’t hear about Peter until a few weeks later. “I got that phone call from John Lilly. John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide.
Just like Dolly in Malcolm Brenner’s account, Peter too had decided to stop breathing (which is voluntary in dolphins).

After more than a decade, in the late 1970s, Hustler magazine published a sexploitation piece about Margaret Lovatt and her “sexual” relationship with Peter, which included an explicit cartoon. Unfortunately, despite all attempts to put her story back within the frame of those pioneering experiments, Margaret was marked for many years as the woman who made love to dolphins.
It’s a bit uncomfortable,” she declared in a Guardian interview. “The worst experiment in the world, I’ve read somewhere, was me and Peter. That’s fine, I don’t mind. But that was not the point of it, nor the result of it. So I just ignore it.

Towards the end of his career, John Lilly became convinced that some gigantic cosmic entities (which he visualized during his acid trips) were responsible for all inexplicable coincidences.
Appropriately enough, just as I was finalizing this post, I stumbled upon one of these coincidences. I opened the New York Times website to find this article: a team of scientists from the University of Chile just published a paper, claiming to have trained an orca to repeat some English words.

So Lilly’s dream of communicating with cetaceans lives on.
Brennan’s dream, on the other hand, is still controversial, as are zoophile associations such as the German ZETA (“Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Enlightenment”), who believe in a future without any sexual barrier between species.
A future where one can easily make love to a dolphin without awakening anyone’s morbid curiosity.
Without anyone necessarily writing about it in a blog of oddities.

(Thanks, Fabri!)

Nim Chimpsky

È possibile insegnare alle scimmie a comunicare con noi attraverso il linguaggio dei segni? È quello che voleva scoprire il dottor Herbert Terrace della Columbia University di New York quando, all’inizio degli anni ’70, diede avvio al suo rivoluzionario”progetto Nim”.

Nim Chimpsky era uno scimpanzé di due settimane, chiamato così per parodiare il nome di Noam Chomsky, linguista e intellettuale fra i più influenti del XX Secolo (chimp in inglese significa appunto scimpanzé).
Nato in cattività presso l’Institute of Primate Studies di Norman (Oklahoma), nel dicembre del 1973 Nim venne sottratto alle cure di sua madre, e affidato da Terrace a una famiglia umana: quella di Stephanie LaFarge, sua ex-allieva. L’intento era quello di crescere il cucciolo in tutto e per tutto come un essere umano, vestirlo come un bambino, trattarlo come un bambino, insegnargli le buone maniere, ma soprattutto cercare di fargli apprendere il linguaggio dei sordomuti.

L’idea di Terrace potrà sembrare un po’ folle e temeraria, ma va inserita in un contesto scientifico peculiare: la linguistica era agli albori, e da poco veniva associata all’etologia per comprendere se si potesse parlare di linguaggio vero e proprio anche nel caso degli animali. Lo stesso Chomsky faceva parte di quella fazione che sosteneva che il linguaggio fosse una caratteristica specifica e assolutamente unica dell’essere umano; secondo questa tesi, gli animali certamente comunicano fra di loro – e si fanno capire bene anche da noi! – ma non possono utilizzare una vera e propria sintassi, che sarebbe prerogativa della nostra struttura neurologica.
Se Nim fosse riuscito ad imparare il linguaggio dei segni, sarebbe stato un vero e proprio terremoto per la comunità scientifica.

Il professor Terrace però commise da subito un grave errore.
La famiglia a cui aveva affidato Nim non era effettivamente la più adatta per l’esperimento: nessuno dei figli della LaFarge era fluente nel linguaggio dei segni, e quindi nella prima fase della sua vita, quella più delicata per l’apprendimento, Nim non imparò granché; inoltre, la madre adottiva era un’ex-hippie con un’idea piuttosto liberale nell’educare i figli.
Nim finì per essere lasciato libero di scorrazzare per il parco, di mettere la casa sottosopra, e addirittura di fumarsi qualche spinello assieme ai “genitori”.
Quando Terrace si rese conto che non stava arrivando alcun questionario compilato, che certificasse i progressi del suo scimpanzé, comprese che l’esperimento era seriamente a rischio. Il clima indisciplinato e caotico di casa LaFarge metteva in pericolo l’intero studio.


Terrace decise quindi di incaricare una studentessa ventenne, Laura-Ann Petitto, dell’educazione di Nim.
Strappato per una seconda volta alla figura materna, lo scimpanzé venne trasferito in una residenza di proprietà della Columbia University, dove la Petitto cominciò un più rigido e intensivo programma di addestramento.
In poco tempo Nim imparò oltre 120 segni, e i suoi progressi cominciarono a fare scalpore. Conversava con i suoi maestri in maniera che sembrava prodigiosa, e in generale faceva mostra di un’intelligenza acuta, tanto da arrivare addirittura a mentire.

Ma ormai Nim non era già più un cucciolo, e con la giovane età cominciò a crescere di mole e soprattutto di forza. I suoi muscoli erano potenti come quelli di due maschi umani messi assieme, e spesso Nim non era in grado di misurare la violenza di un suo gesto: gli stessi giochi che qualche mese prima erano spensierati, diventavano per gli addestratori sempre più pericolosi perché lo scimpanzé non si rendeva conto della sua forza.
Con lo sviluppo sessuale e la maturazione verso l’età adulta, inoltre, crebbe anche la sua aggressività: la Petitto venne attaccata diverse volte, due delle quali in maniera molto grave. I morsi di Nim in un’occasione le lacerarono la faccia, costringendola a 37 punti di sutura, e in un’altra le recisero un tendine.

La tensione psicologica era insopportabile, e la Petitto decise di lasciare l’esperimento… e di lasciare Terrace, con il quale aveva cominciato una relazione sentimentale.
Joyce Butler, una studentessa di vent’anni, entrò a sostituire la Petitto come terza madre adottiva di Nim. Anche lei fu più volte attaccata dalla scimmia, e la difficoltà di reperire fondi fece infine decidere a Terrace di dichiarare concluso l’esperimento, e smantellare il progetto dopo solo quattro anni.

Qui cominciò un vero e proprio calvario per il povero Nim. Egli non aveva infatto mai avuto contatti con altri primati, essendo sempre vissuto con gli umani: quando gli scienziati lo riportarono all’Institute of Primate Studies, Nim era completamente terrorizzato dai suoi simili e ci vollero diversi uomini per staccarlo da Joyce Butler, alla quale si era avvinghiato, per essere rinchiuso nella gabbia.
Per “lo scimpanzé che sapeva parlare”, abituato a mangiare a tavola in compagnia degli esseri umani e a correre libero nel parco, la prigionia fu uno shock terribile. Ma le cose erano destinate a peggiorare, perché l’istituto decise di trasferirlo in un centro di ricerca scientifico in cui si faceva sperimentazione sugli animali.

Rinchiuso in una gabbia ancora più angusta, di fianco a decine di altre scimmie terrorizzate in attesa di essere inoculate con virus e antibiotici, il futuro di Nim era tutt’altro che roseo. Terrace non muoveva un dito per salvarlo da quel destino, e così ci pensarono alcuni degli assistenti che avevano preso parte al progetto: organizzarono un battage mediatico denunciando le condizioni inumane in cui Nim era tenuto, diedero avvio a un’azione legale e infine riuscirono a farlo trasferire in un ranch di recupero per animali selvatici, liberando anche le altre scimmie destinate agli esperimenti.

Nonostante fosse al sicuro in questa riserva naturale, Nim era ormai provato, abbattuto e depresso; restava immobile e senza mangiare anche per giorni. Quando dopo anni la sua prima madre adottiva, Stephanie LaFarge, gli fece visita e volle entrare nella gabbia, Nim la riconobbe immediatamente e, come se la ritenesse responsabile per averlo abbandonato, la attaccò quando lei provò ad entrare nella gabbia.

Eppure arrivò per Nim almeno un’ultima, insperata, dolce sorpresa: dopo un lungo periodo di solitudine, un altro scimpanzé, femmina, venne introdotto nella sua gabbia e per la prima volta Nim riuscì a socializzare con la nuova arrivata.
Potè così passare gli ultimi anni della sua vita in compagnia di una nuova amica, forse più sincera e fidata di quanto non fossero stati gli uomini. Nim morì nel 2000 per un attacco di cuore.

Il professor Terrace, dopo aver cercato e ottenuto la fama grazie a questo ambizioso progetto, tornò sui suoi passi e dichiarò che il progetto era stato fallimentare; dichiarò che Nim non aveva mai veramente imparato a formulare delle frasi di senso compiuto, ma che era soltanto divenuto abile ad associare certi segni alla ricompensa, e aveva capito quali sequenze usare per ottenere del cibo. La voglia dei ricercatori di vedere in un animale un’intelligenza simile alla nostra aveva insomma viziato i risultati, che andavano grandemente ridimensionati.
Ancora oggi però c’è chi è convinto del contrario: gli assistenti e i collaboratori che hanno conosciuto Nim e si sono presi cura di lui continuano anche oggi a sostenere che Nim sapesse davvero parlare in maniera chiara e precisa, e che se Terrace si fosse degnato di stare un po’ di più con lo scimpanzé, invece di relazionarsi con lui soltanto al momento di farsi bello davanti ai fotografi, l’avrebbe certamente capito.

La ricerca, per la metodologia confusionaria con cui venne condotta, ha effettivamente un valore scientifico relativo, e i dati raccolti si prestano a interpretazioni troppo volubili.
D’altronde un esperimento come il progetto Nim è figlio del suo tempo, e sarebbe impensabile replicarlo oggi; lo strano destino di Nim, questo essere speciale che ha vissuto due vite in una, la prima come “umano” e la seconda come animale da laboratorio, continua però a sollevare altre questioni, forse ancora più fondamentali. Ci interroga sui confini (reali? inventati?) che separano l’uomo dalla bestia, e soprattutto sui limiti etici della ricerca.

Nel 2010 James Marsh (già regista di Man On Wire) ha diretto uno splendido documentario, Project Nim, costituito in larga parte di materiale d’archivio inedito, che ripercorre in maniera commovente e appassionante l’intera vicenda.