Research is a broad church. Anything from peer-reviewed, scientifically-rigorous papers to the results of 5 minutes spent Googling has been called research, but even from these two examples it is clear that not all research is equal.
Some research is strict, with clear limitations and goals and a framework in which to couch the findings. And then there is the sort of research Margaret Howe Lovatt was involved in, which led to a sensationalized article by Hustler magazine stating that Margaret had intercourse with the dolphin.
What was this experiment, and what is the truth?
Margaret Howe Lovatt
Margaret Howe Lovatt was living on the island of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in her early 20s when, in December 1963, her brother-in-law told her about a secret laboratory on the island’s eastern end that was working with dolphins. She was curious, and in January 1964, she drove to the lab to learn more, or just really to poke around.
At the lab, Margaret ran into Gregory Bateson, a British anthropologist, cyberneticist, linguist, social scientist, visual anthropologist, and semiotician. Baeston is perhaps best known for developing the double-bind theory of schizophrenia.
When Bateson questioned why she was there, Margaret Howe Lovatt told him, “I heard you had dolphins, and I thought I’d come and see if there was anything I could do or any way I could help…” Taken with her bravado and desire to work, she was invited to meet the three dolphins at the lab; Pamela, Sissy, and Peter.
Margaret Howe Lovatt was told to sit and watch the dolphins and record their behavior. With no scientific experience, Lovatt observed and took notes that were good enough for Bateson to tell her to return whenever she wanted.
The lab had been designed by American neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly with the hopes of communicating with the animals and fostering their ability to make “human-like sounds through their blow holes.” They were, pretty much literally, teaching dolphins to speak like a person.
Dr. Lilly and his assistant would “talk” to the dolphins. The dolphins would respond by making a “wuh wuh sound” like Dr. Lilly was making, and the animals also imitated his assistant’s higher voice.
Dr. Lilly thought the behavior was a sign that the dolphins wanted to communicate with humans. Dr. Lilly published a book explaining his theory in 1961, Man and Dolphin.
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The book expanded on the dolphins mimicking human sounds and that an attempt to teach them to speak English should be made. He also said that teaching dolphins English would lead to “a Cetacean Chair at the United Nations, where all marine mammals would have an enlightened input into world affairs, widening human perspectives on everything from science to history, economics, and current affairs.” The crazy idea was turned into the NASA-funded lab, the same one that Margaret Howe Lovatt visited a year after it had been constructed.
Margaret Howe Lovatt spent as much time as possible with the dolphins, attempting to create a bond and going through a series of daily lessons that were believed to encourage the animals to make human sounds. Gregory Bateson was also working on experiments related to animal-to-animal communication, so Margaret was heavily involved in Dr. Lilly’s strange experiment.
At the end of the day, the humans would leave the facility and go home. Margaret Howe Lovatt felt that if she could live with the dolphins, she could increase their interest in human sounds, much like a mom teaches her baby their first words.
Dr. Lilly loved Margaret’s idea of living with the animals, so he created a bed on the lab’s elevator platform in the middle of the room and hung a desk from the ceiling over the water so Margaret could do paperwork.
During a three-month cohabitation experiment, Margaret Howe Lovatt selected Peter the Dolphin as her subject. Peter had yet to engage in human sound training, unlike Pamela and Sissy.
The plan was that Margaret and Peter would live in isolation six days a week, and on the seventh day, Peter would be returned to the tank with the other two dolphins. Peter was a sexually maturing young dolphin and, at times, would become aroused.
Peter bonded with Margaret, and she said he would “rub himself” on her knee, foot, or hand. When Peter became aroused, he was transferred into the tank with Pamela and Sissy, who were females. Like teen boys during puberty, Peter was distracted by his arousal, and moving him to and from the tank with the girls further distracted him.
In her mind, Margaret Howe Lovatt felt that minimizing distraction was necessary and chose to relieve Peter’s “urges” manually. So, she did what she thought was the most appropriate thing to do in such a situation: she started manually masturbating the dolphin.
Before the red flag of bestiality goes up in your mind, it is essential to note that Margaret never engaged in sex with Peter in a way humans engage in intercourse. She said it didn’t bother her, and getting it over with meant they could return to their lessons.
Her stimulating Peter when he was aroused was not something she did in private or was a secret; anyone at the lab could watch her interact with Peter. It sounds questionable, but Margaret said that this behavior wasn’t sexual on her part, and she did not have an interest in engaging in zoophilia, a paraphilia where a person is sexually fixated on non-human animals.
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Margaret Howe Lovatt’s behavior was not an issue with the scientists at the lab, and it was innocent on her part. However, the public felt a different way.
Hustler magazine published an article in the late 1970s titled “Interspecies Sex: Humans and Dolphin” and an illustration of a woman nude gripping onto the underside of a dolphin. Hustler was in direct competition with Playboy, who dominated the market of porn magazines.
A sensational article featured a quote from Dr. Lilly about how dolphins mate and their erections, along with statements that one woman “claimed to have gotten off approximately 900 times with our furry friends” did just what the publishers intended. Thousands of magazines were sold.
Margaret said it was uncomfortable; the implication that she was engaging in intercourse with a dolphin would make anyone uncomfortable. She said it didn’t bother her. Margaret has said, “[sex] was not the point of it [the experiment], nor the result of it. So I just ignore it.”
Did We Not Mention the LSD?
In a piece of news that will come as no shock to anyone, there were also psychoactive drugs involved. Dr.Lilly was one of the few scientists in the US who were authorized to research the effects of LSD. Dr. Lilly was giving the three dolphins LSD to study the effects, but the dolphins didn’t react at all.
So the dolphins weren’t speaking, they weren’t even enjoying the drugs, and this lack of results ultimately led to a lack of funding. The experiments ended abruptly, and the dolphins were relocated to a facility in Miami, Florida.
Here the story takes an even darker turn. Animals have been used to test LSD and its effects as an antidepressant, as have humans for many years. Sadly Peter, the dolphin, committed suicide once he was in Miami.
In the decades since, many have felt that Margaret Howe Lovatt should be punished for “molesting an animal.” However, as gross as it is, she is not the first nor the last scientist who has had to stimulate their animal subjects manually.
Breeding animals often requires a collection of semen through manual means. Professor of primate sexual psychology at Emory University, Kim Wallen, explains that “masturbation for commerce [in animals] is seen as normal and appropriate, but masturbation where the end point is sexual arousal is not. Sex has an uncanny way of revealing inconsistencies in our thinking.”
Top Image: The dolphin experiments in which Margaret Howe Lovatt was involved were anything but ethical. Source: Corina Daniela Obertas / Adobe Stock.