Flipper Goes Postal
New evidence of violent tendencies in dolphins
Published August 16, 1999 in Whoa!

Flipper needs an image consultant. Apparently, the frolicsome ambassador of an aquatic wonderworld has a dark side. "Evidence Puts Dolphins In New Light, As Killers," declared an article in the science section of The New York Times.

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... by Mark Dery
... in the Whoa! section
... from August 16, 1999

Dolphins evidently kill for sport, slaughtering harbor porpoises in droves by bludgeoning them with their beaks and savaging them with their sharp teeth. They murder baby dolphins for no known reason, and attack humans eager for interspecies bonding. "I literally ripped my left leg out of its mouth," said one would-be Woman Who Swims With Dolphins.

The news of our flippered friends' less-cuddly aspects will doubtless come as a shock to the, er, pod people who worship them. Dolphins figure in the New Age imagination as guardian "Angels of the Sea," midwives of our Inner Child's rebirthing, and patron saints of little innocents, preferably chronically-ill or retarded. They're portrayed as wise, highly evolved aliens, mythic kin to the otherworldly water sprites in the movie Abyss or the luminous, numinous E.T.s in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

With their interspecies telepathy and collective pod consciousness, they're messiahs and martyrs, embodying New Age/Christian visions of universal oneness and infinite bliss while suffering the depredations of Homo sap with sad-eyed equanimity. At www.dolphin-synergy.com, Daniel McCulloch, who hosts the page Synergy Dolphin Experience, writes, "Like wise elders, they make their huge, loving souls available for us to blend with, if we are capable of being that deep."

Pilgrims in search of aquatic beatitude might even get lucky. According to McCulloch's Web site, an anonymous seeker in her 50s "had a powerful 'lucid dream' in which a Man-Dolphin came to her in the most intimate way. She awoke the next morning feeling more highly sensual than she had in years. In the next days, she had very close encounters, especially with one dolphin that she was convinced was the one in the dream." Is that your rostrum, or are you just glad to see me?

From now on, though, New Agers looking for midlife epiphanies may choose not to bond with these natural-born killers. But beyond that obvious conclusion, Flipper's fall from grace has other lessons to teach. The moral that springs immediately to mind, in a postmodern moment when Netgeeks e-mail marriage proposals to Lara Croft and Sony markets a creepily lifelike robo-pup named Aibo, is that not all nature is brought to you by Disney's Imagineers. This is the lesson we were supposed to have learned from those Fox TV shockumentaries where wild animals maul humans who mistook them for theme-park attractions.

Another lesson we were supposed to have learned, in our age of "transgressed boundaries" and "potent fusions" (as the postmodern theorist Donna Haraway put it), is that the philosophical firewalls between all the old dualisms are crumbling. Nature and culture are increasingly intertangled, both literally, as with auto emissions and global warming, and figuratively, as with the psycho weather that mirrors our chaos culture.

Thus, the grim news, reported by the Times, that even "sea life has its own incidents of child abuse and massacres" makes zeitgeist sense. When mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, how can we expect the reassuring SeaWorld dualism of Good Whale/Bad Shark to hold true? Disaffected teens are gunning down their high-school classmates, day traders are going postal -- why not dolphins?

Besides, there was always something suspicious about that smile. The scariest psychopaths, from Travis Bickle to Jack Torrance, are always the ones with the forced grins. Much of the media commentary on dolphins' dark side has noted our all-too-human tendency to romanticize wild animals, especially "playful" ones with permanent "smiles."

Americans seem to harbor a special fondness for these cetaceans with upturned mouths, an affection that makes sense in light of our reputation in lugubrious Old Europe for compulsive smiling. And, as with the dolphin's false grin, the American smile conceals the killer inside, in our case the sociopathology of a nation awash in guns, rotten with wealth and power, and sublimely indifferent to the sufferings of its underclass. "Just because dolphins have a smile doesn't mean they're nonaggressive," says a scientist quoted in the Times article. They are just like us, after all.

Mark Dery has written about new media, fringe thought, and unpopular culture for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, Suck, and Feed.