Ric O’Barry on Food Deprivation and Dolphin Training

By Elizabeth Batt

Following on from my interview on food deprivation with Drs. John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre, I was fortunate enough to sit down and Skype with Dolphin Project founder and director — Ric O’Barry. It’s always an experience talking with Ric, he has this knack of cutting through the complicated vernacular and stripping away the subterfuge. Inevitably, I find myself wondering why I ever let it get so complicated in the first place. Simple logic is powerful, and as talking with Ric often reminds me, it’s one of his greatest assets. Which is why when I asked him about food deprivation at marine parks, he cut straight to the chase:

Food deprivation is still alive and well by the way, but the industry doesn’t like to admit that, but there really is no way to control a dolphin without food. It’s not possible. Your dog will do things for a pat on the head, not true with a dolphin, and that is the only reason why we had five Flipper dolphins.

Ric O'Barry and Kathy, one of the 'Flipper' dolphins, 1968

Ric O’Barry and Kathy, one of the ‘Flipper’ dolphins, 1968

Ric captured and trained all of the dolphins that appeared in the television show, Flipper. First broadcast on NBC on September 19, 1964, it was produced in cooperation with the Miami Seaquarium located on Key Biscayne in Miami. “Biscayne Bay is where all of the dolphins were captured,” Ric told me, “we captured hundreds of them.”

Dolphins in Biscayne Bay love nothing more than to bow ride. It’s a simple pleasure that became their downfall. Bow riding was how many of the dolphins were captured. “We’d let a dinghy out which has the net in it that is also fastened to the capture boat,” Ric told me. “When the dolphins are at the bow of the boat, we would make a huge circle — maybe the size of a city block, and enclose them.”

These dolphins of course, wouldn’t know they were enclosed until the net was actually sealed. That’s when the capture team really sprang into action. “We would get into the water and make the circle smaller and smaller,” Ric said. “Some of them would hit the net and tangle up, and we would put them in the 14-foot Boston Whaler and take them back to the Seaquarium.”

Once back at the marine park, the captured dolphins were deposited into a small tank. Now would begin the transition process from wild to captive dolphin.

“You might go back there and watch them two or three times,” explained Ric, “and they’re frightened – going in small circles, usually clockwise.”

I never fail to learn something new whenever I speak to Ric, and today, was no exception. In this part of the world he tells me, captured dolphins swim clockwise. On the other side of the world they swim counter-clockwise. But whichever direction they swim in, all of them panic when contained:

They’re swimming very fast and they’re scared, and they come to the surface and take a quick breath (chuff), and you’ll see their eye above the surface of the water looking at you. They’re terrified, they don’t know what’s happening to them. These are animals that live in a world where there are no walls – they have no concept of a wall, and all of a sudden here they are, surrounded by them. — Ric O’Barry

Most of the time — almost every time, Ric adds, the dolphins stop eating. “They have never eaten a dead fish,” he explains, “that’s something they just don’t do — generally speaking.”

Carolina Snowball

Carolina Snowball was an albino dolphin with ebony teeth

In South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, wherever the shrimping industry operates, some dolphins do follow the shrimp boats and will eat dead fish that are thrown over the side. “That’s how we captured Carolina Snowball,” Ric said. “In the process of shrimping there are a lot of small fish — trash fish, which are thrown over the side, and dolphins will eat these, but generally speaking, most dolphins will not eat a dead fish.”

So, how do you get a terrified dolphin to eat? As with any other type of animal training, it’s a process.

“I’ve seen them go 10 days without eating anything, and some of them have died in the process,” said Ric, “but generally speaking they’ll start taking fish in 3-5 days. You keep offering fish, keep throwing fish into the tank. That’s what I would do, and they would be all over the bottom of the tank — herring and mackerel.”

At the end of each day, Ric would have to enter the water and retrieve all of the dead fish. “It rots,” he explained, “and then you get ammonia. The next day, you do the same thing all over again. Then you start counting the fish, and you can see when somebody has been eating.”

Taking that first dead fish is important, hunger usually drives the dolphins to take more. After that, Ric would throw the fish just in front of them while they were swimming around the tank.

Teaching them to hand-feed was the next step in the process. It was also the most important. Hand-feeding is the basis for all future training, so this step involved returning to their tank several times a day. Ric explained:

They’re now taking fish — not from your hand, but fish you’re throwing in. The next step is to actually get them to take the fish out of your hand. By standing at the edge of a tank with a nice fresh herring or other oily fish and slapping it on the water and then holding it in front of them, eventually the dolphin will come by and just whip it right out of your hand without stopping. If you continue this process, they will finally accept it from your hand. Once you’re hand-feeding them, you are in complete control. You have all the power now. For the rest of their lives they are watching the buckets.

Once a dolphin is taking a dead fish, it’s a matter of connecting it to something. For example, if you wanna train a dolphin to push a trainer through the water by his feet, that’s achieved by hand-feeding them and then you introduce then to a target pole. The dolphin will touch it accidentally and then you’ll reward them, and they catch on very quickly — you don’t even need the whistle. Once they know, ‘oh if I touch that, I’m gonna get a fish’, they’ve got it.

These dolphins are now “targeted”, and once that happens, the sky is the limit.

The target pole can be replaced with your foot. They’re not really pushing the guy through the water in their mind — at least at first — they’re just targeting, and they know they’re going to get rewarded. When you see kissing – it’s the same thing. One of the biggest moneymakers these places have is having your picture taken being kissed by a dolphin. The dolphin is not kissing you at all, it’s simply targeting. And you’ll see immediately afterwards, its eye goes straight to the bucket. — Ric O’Barry

Bigger facilities such as SeaWorld have learned to extend targeting. “They call them behaviors now,” said Ric. He added:

When they’re doing a show, after each command given, they give them a signal and the dolphin either does it or doesn’t. If they do, you blow a whistle — this is called a bridge, and that tells them that they did it right and they’re going to be rewarded. If you don’t blow the whistle, that means they didn’t do it right and they won’t be rewarded.

The audience can’t see any of that, and when I go to one of these facilities, I don’t see the same thing that the audience sees. They’re looking at an optical illusion, but I can read the body language — not only of the dolphin, but the trainer too. Food deprivation is very obvious to me, but you may not even see it.

Ric never used a whistle when he was training dolphins. “Dolphins are so smart they don’t need the whistle,” he said, “what they’re really responding to is this… ” Ric rattles a metal bucket at me, and continues:

This is a standard dolphin metal bucket. It’s made of stainless steel, and they all use this exact same bucket. So when you arrive at the tank, the dolphin is looking right at that bucket. Now that I’ve told you about this insider secret, you can go to any facility, or watch videos online and you’ll see the dolphins are not even looking at the trainer. They don’t care about the trainer, they’re looking at the bucket. Watch their eyes, they’re waiting for your hand to go inside the bucket — that’s as good as blowing the whistle. It tells the dolphin, ‘I’m gonna get that fish.’ They’re much smarter than trainers give them credit for.


Filming for Flipper

As one of the most popular shows on network television, there was always pressure to have the Flipper dolphins ready to perform.

For filming, we’d start off in the morning — and it depended on the workload, but if Kathy or Suzy came out and were ready to shoot, we would go through a whole morning of shooting various scenes. At that point they may be full because they may have had 10 lbs of fish by 11 a.m. and their stomach is full and so now they not interested anymore. So they would just swim away — they don’t need you anymore, and we’d have to bring out a different dolphin — one that’s hungry. That’s why we had five of them, although we only used two of them 95% of the time. So you control them with food.

I would hold back food when I was given instructions to make sure, “they’re sharp.” So in the morning when the crew shows up, you want to be sure they’re sharp and they’re going to work because they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a day making this happen, and it’s all contingent on the dolphin doing what it’s supposed to do — Ric O’Barry.

Ric does not believe that marine parks starve their whales or dolphins. “The trainers care about them,” he said, “not so much the corporation, but the people who actually come into contact with them, care about them. That’s why they applied for the job.”

But back to targeting, which in case you haven’t figured it out yet, is the core behavior for almost everything that is learned afterwards. It also has a sinister purpose, one utilized by the military, both Russian and American. “Once a dolphin is targeting properly,  the ball can be replaced by the foot so that dolphins can push the trainer (or paying customer) through the water. It can also be replaced by “kissing” a tourist or in the case of the US Navy of War program, a Swimmer Nullification System,” Ric told me.

This is the same as the basic trained behavior known as "targeting". The dolphin does not know the difference between "kissing" a tourist or doing the same behavior to a "target diver" -- Ric O'Barry. Image: Poltavabloggen

This is the same as the basic trained behavior known as “targeting”. The dolphin does not know the difference between “kissing” a tourist or doing the same behavior to a “target diver” — Ric O’Barry. Image: Poltavabloggen

The Swimmer Nullification System is a simple device which is attached to a fitting on the dolphin’s beak. And the one Ric shows me, which is known as a bang-stick, holds a 12-gauge shotgun shell. It is used to protect divers from sharks. The one the Navy uses is similar to the bang-stick and uses a 45-caliber shell. It replaced the long needle and CO2 injection system.

In his book, The Red Circle, Brandon Webb describes his experience as a Navy SEAL diving against US Navy Dolphins. He also wrote about it on his website:

The Marine Mammal Unit would often work them into our training dives, although we admittedly knew very little about their capabilities. We just knew that you didn’t want to get hit by them – it was not a pleasant experience for those SEALs that got nailed in the murky night water.

Webb also confirmed rumors of a weaponized dolphin delivery system that could hit divers with a deadly CO2 cartridge:

The concept is a simple one: dolphin hits an enemy diver with a CO2 dart that injects him with compressed nitrogen, diver has an embolism, and diver is dead. It’s very efficient and extremely hard to defend against.

An anonymous SEAL source later confirmed the existence of this system to Webb:

One of the MK 6 dolphins was named Jake and he was a real bastard to dive against. All the dolphins were very intelligent but none matched Jake’s aggression. They eventually retired him and I heard that this dolphin actually had enemy diver KIA.

It’s worthy of note that Buck, Luther and Jake, were the three “systems” that the Dolphin Project attempted to free.

Whether bang-stick or CO2 delivery, “both programs use the same basic principle, and both can be an extension of the basic target training,” Ric said. “This basic behavior can be used to push a dolphin trainer through the water by his/her feet, or up into the air. It’s all about manipulation and control. It starts with training the dolphin to touch the Styrofoam ball or the palm of your hand. Once they learn that behavior, you can use it to kiss a tourist or kill an intrusive enemy diver.”

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

Author: Elizabeth Batt


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