Why call it science? by Ric O’Barry

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1995:

A lot of people have a misconception about how
we prepare captive dolphins to return to the wild. They
think we t r a i n them for that. We taught them to jump
through hoops; now we teach them to survive in the wild.
And how do we teach them? Scientifically.
Even many of the people working to readapt and
release captive dolphins think this is what we’re doing. But
how could dolphins be taught what they ought to know when
what they need to know is not to listen to me or anyone else?
What I actually do is so simple that most people
don’t get it. There is no mystery to it. In my protocol for the
readaption and release of captive dolphins, I have three
basic rules: 1) Assume you know nothing. 2) Maintain
sustained observation. 3) Consider the obvious.

And to me that means that if the dolphins’ prob-
lems began with what we taught them, the last thing we

want to do is teach them something more.
We need to un-teach them. That means to let them
forget what we have already taught them. When I prepare
dolphins for life in the wild again, I don’t teach them any-
thing, much less how to live in the wild. I don’t think it’s
possible to teach them that. What we can do, though, is try
to understand dolphins on their level in their world, the crip-
pled world we put them in. And then let nature take its
course. What we’re doing is a healing art, not a science.
I keep notes, yes. I always have. But not for sci-
entific reasons. Notes taken on one dolphin don’t apply to
any other dolphin because each dolphin is an individual case.
I keep track of everything that happens because I have to jus-
tify expenses, and if suddenly I have to turn the job over to
one of my assistants, they’ll be able to carry on.
I recently worked for months with three dolphins,
Molly, Bogie, and Bacall, at the Sugarloaf Dolphin
Sanctuary in the Florida Keys. They were on track for
release; then other people moved in and insisted that the for-
mer trainer of the dolphins take over. I knew this was a mis-
take, but I had to go along with it. In less than a week, all
my work was ruined. This trainer turned the dolphins into
her adorable little pets again. And that, of course, is exactly
what I had worked for so long to change.

I used to call what I do “un-training,” and some
trainers didn’t like that term because it was negative.
Trainers are themselves very positive people. They have to
be because they need to be in control. If they lose control,
they’ve lost everything. When I described what I was doing
as un-training, to them it meant I wasn’t doing anything.
Some of them have accused me of simply living with the
dolphins for a few months and then turning them loose.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but not much, so I
plead guilty. What I do in preparing dolphins for life in the
wild is to simply allow their previous training to go unrein-
forced. In other words, I ignore it. And this too is an art,
because as I watch each dolphin very closely, day by day I
can see each bit of their previous training fall away. And
one day when it’s all gone––when it’s extinguished, as the
behaviorists would say––they’re ready.

When all else is ready, when we’ve given the dol-
phins their last health check and we know they have no dis-
ease they might transmit to the wild population, when the
population study of the dolphins in the vicinity is complete,
water quality and so on is doublechecked, only then are
they ready to be released and tracked.
So far, the dolphins I have released, about a
dozen now, have made it on their own, and I feel good
about it.
Yes, I live with the dolphins. But when I live
with them, I really live with them. With each jump, I am
there. With each live fish they chase around the pen, I am
there, too. Every time they dive, every time they surface,
with every breath, I am with them––and yet they never
know me. To them I am like a small mangrove tree growing
at the edge of the sanctuary, a bush on the bank, a heron on
one leg gazing at the water. I keep out of sight as much as
possible. I never talk to them. I wear dark glasses when I
feed them so that there is never the possibility of eye con-
tact. I do my stealthy business and then steal back to my
tent where I watch them and calculate when the umbilical
can be cut forever, when they will be thinking not of me nor
of any other human being, but only of getting on with their
lives as dolphins.
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