The Dolphin House

Nov 4, 2023 | Nature, Videos

Dolphins are renowned for their intelligence, with many experts believing they are the second smartest creatures on Earth, after humans. The small cetaceans have been the subjects of much scientific research over the last 70 years, with one of the most famous and provocative experiments taking place in 1965. Conducted by eccentric yet renowned neuroscientist John Lilly, he set up a lab called Dolphin House on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands to explore dolphin communication and learning abilities.

John enlisted 23-year old Margaret Howe to assist him, who lived in the flooded house with a mature bottle-nosed dolphin named Peter for 10 to 12 weeks. During this time, Margaret attempted to teach Peter how to speak English, using techniques akin to those of a mother teaching her toddler. Early researchers had already discovered that dolphins could mimic human tones and seemed to interact with each other in an advanced way; NASA even provided some funding as they hoped any insights gained could be applied to possible communications with extraterrestrial beings.

Things took a turn for the worse when John grew impatient with progress and chose to inject Peter with LSD in order stimulate his brain – something which greatly affected him, making him become more aggressive and even nibbling at Margaret’s feet and legs if he was overly stimulated. Eventually depressed from being drugged and isolated from other dolphins, Peter committed suicide by refusing to come up for air from his tank – an event which caused an uproar among animal rights activists and led to John losing all his funding from NASA and other sponsors.

The Dolphin House experiment was undoubtedly an experiment gone wrong; however it did bring attention to both dolphin intelligence as well as ethical practices when dealing with animals used in experiments or captivity. A documentary about this remarkable experiment has been created titled ‘Dolphin Tale’, based on actual events during this time period. This documentary is a must watch for anyone interested in learning more about dolphin communication as well as marveling at their incredible abilities; it not only brings justice but also respect for these remarkable creatures of our oceans.

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David B