Around Tampa Bay this week, everybody's thinking about dolphins. The movie Dolphin Tale, based on the true story of a rescued dolphin, Winter, was filmed at and near the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter lives. There will be special screenings Wednesday in Clearwater, with plenty of Hollywood dazzle, and the movie opens to the public on Friday. But Diana Reiss has been thinking about dolphins every day for more than three decades, and she shares her fascinating work and relationships with them in her new book, The Dolphin in the Mirror.
Reiss, a cognitive psychologist and a professor at Hunter College and City University of New York, is director of dolphin research at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. She has devoted much of her career to researching the intelligence of dolphins and how they communicate with each other — and with us.
The essential question she wants to answer, she writes, is how animals think — even though science, particularly the behavioral school of psychology dominant in much of the 20th century, once argued they didn't think at all in the way humans do, but only reacted to stimuli.
"If you live with a dog or a cat or if you ride horses," Reiss writes, "you may be quick to say 'I already knew they could think!' But the path that I trace with my students requires rigorous science rather than affectionate anecdotes."
In The Dolphin in the Mirror, she gives us both. From her earliest memory, she felt a bond with animals, rescuing any injured critter — she calls herself "Little Diana of Assisi" — and believing she and her dog knew each other's thoughts.
As an adult, she married a theater director and worked for several years as a set designer (a skill set that proved useful later to build underwater devices to test dolphins' abilities). But an epiphany during an acting workshop, during which people in a dark warehouse made animal noises to communicate, led her to pursue a Ph.D. in bioacoustics. The next epiphany occurred when, as a graduate student in 1976, she was galvanized by a newspaper article about the killing of whales and dolphins.
Among her early inspirations was John Lilly, a charismatic neuroscientist who believed he could teach dolphins to speak English, and to that end in the 1960s bought a house in St. Thomas, flooded its bottom floors and moved in with several dolphins.
Reiss eschewed such outlandish approaches but was just as avid to discover what dolphins' known gifts for mimicry and learning could reveal about their minds. Among the most vivid passages in the book are her accounts of her early research, done on shoestring budgets in less than ideal circumstances, like at a tiny tourist aquarium in Spain, but yielding sometimes amazing results.
At that aquarium, Reiss worked with a young female dolphin she dubbed Circe, for the enchanting witch of Greek mythology. (The ancient Greeks believed dolphins were closer to the gods than humans were, and they executed men who killed them.)
Inspired by research being done with apes that involved symbol keyboards, Reiss built one for Circe, a kind of "dolphin vending machine" that let the animal choose a desirable object — a ball, a ring, a float necklace — by touching a button with a particular shape.
Circe learned how to do it easily — and that's not all she learned. Part of the training process involved using "timeouts," in which the trainer stood back from the pool and briefly avoided interaction, when the dolphin did something incorrectly. Reiss had discovered that Circe preferred to have the tails cut off the frozen fish fed to her, so she routinely trimmed them. One day she forgot and gave Circe a spiny tail piece. The dolphin shook her head, spit it out, swam away across the pool and "positioned herself vertically in the water . . . an unusual posture to maintain." Circe was giving Reiss a timeout.
Affectionate anecdote? Reiss duplicated the fishtail error six more times at random intervals — and got four timeouts. How many human parents are that consistent?
Reiss fills the book with such intriguing tales and with the science behind them, such as the test that gives the book its title. "Mirror self-recognition" involves marking an animal with paint or another harmless substance, then observing whether it responds to the mark when it looks at itself in a mirror. How it responds can help scientists understand whether the animal has self-awareness — whether it knows the reflection is itself, not another dolphin. Such self-awareness was long thought to be solely a human trait, but testing shows great apes, dolphins and elephants may share it.
Dolphins, like whales and elephants, have bigger brains than humans. But truly understanding how those brains work, Reiss makes clear, is no easy task. Dolphins — whose evolution is separated from our own by more than 90 million years — are a kind of alien, living in an environment utterly different from ours and navigating it exquisitely well almost entirely by sound and echolocation. We can see that they seem to be thinking, but how and what remain a mystery.
Reiss is passionate about her science, but she is passionate about her subjects as well, devoting the last portion of the book to her involvement in the making of the Oscar-winning film The Cove. The polar opposite of the feel-good Dolphin Tale, it documents the gruesomely brutal annual drive hunts of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, in which hundreds of the animals are slaughtered, sometimes butchered alive. Despite the film and the efforts of scientists and animal rights activists worldwide, the hunts continue.
Reiss recounts, at several points in the book, the countless tales of dolphins rescuing drowning humans, stories that can be found in cultures around the world, as far back as ancient Greece and as recently as the story of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. One of the surest signs of intelligence, she tells us, is theory of mind — the ability to understand how another being thinks. And one of its hallmarks is empathy.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.