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.
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
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
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.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on July 6, 1999.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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