Ric O'Barry and Naomi Rose discuss the use of dolphins by the Navy and, the issues and circumstances surrounding the 'unauthorized'  release of two of them in May 1996. (Excerpted from FRONTLINE'S interviews with Rose and O'Barry.)

Ric O'Barry


O'BARRY: Well it's abusive. Well-- 'we're only talking about a few dolphins here. There's millions of them out there.' That's the argument. But what's wrong with abusing a few women? Hey, there's millions of them out there! It's the same kind of thinking, same kind of logic. Besides the ethical considerations, it's a faulty weapons system. It doesn't even work, okay? It doesn't work. The public is being ripped off. It didn't work in Vietnam. It didn't work in the Persian Gulf and it didn't work anywhere they tried it. They're not dependable the dolphins. Once a dolphin has been fed their full allotment of fish you no longer have control over the dolphin. They know that. I sometimes suspect that this whole program is a phoney program as a deterrent to the enemy. We know that the North Vietnamese were living in terror of these kamikaze dolphins as they were called. We used dolphins to take out North Vietnamese regulars coming down the Mekong Delta and they died there and we've used them in the Persian Gulf and these were basically disposable dolphins for a disposable society. And that's what's wrong with it.

What happened was, the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall came down and the Congress decided the Russians are not coming. Therefore let's release all these dolphin back in the wild, save some money. And they gave the captivity industry a half a million dollars to figure out how to do this. Behind closed doors in Mexico, they brought in people from the captivity industry and they decided, this can't be done successfully. So therefore we're going to take care of them for the rest of their life at your expense, the taxpayers. People like myself who have successfully released dolphins in the wild were not invited. It's a rip-off and the American people today are still being ripped off because they're being told that they cannot be released into the wild and that simply is not true.


O'BARRY: That release of the Navy dolphins, Buck and Luther, was a good release. It was ethical, it was professional, it was well done, they were well prepared. We took blood and could prove absolutely they didn't carry a virus to the wild population. We freeze branded them; we weaned them off of the dead fish. We extinguished all of the behaviours they learned in captivity but I didn't give them a lobotomy. They can still remember this pinger that the Navy uses and when I released them they were ringing with the pinger. We're talking about the Dolphin Research Center, the Marine Mammal Conservancy, all of the dolphin trainers, the U.S. Navy, Sea World was involved moving them from the sanctuary.

So the captivity industry sabotaged this with the help of the National Marine Fisheries Service because they don't want them released. The Navy incidentally, we're talking about civilian contractors, not really the Navy. The Navy is being ripped off. The civilian contractors who are part of the Alliance of Marine Parks - it's a matter of record - part of the ... Mammal Trainers Association.

So we're doing this work--we're doing it behind enemy lines. We are in South Florida. From Orlando to Key West is one big theme park and once you release the dolphins into the wild there's a period of adjustment. They have to adjust and you have to have some respect for them and simply leave them alone. That's not what happened. As soon as they were released it looked like - do you know what it reminded me of? When you see a hound being chased through the forest and you see these guys in red coats and dogs, it was just like that and they started feeding them dead fish right away. I have pictures of this. They sabotaged it. They sabotaged it and had I released Flipper, the Brazilian dolphin in the same area, he would be in captivity also. They would have captured him and said, we saved him because he was in trouble.


O'BARRY: By releasing them? Without a permit you mean? Yeah. It's a funny thing, you know. We applied for a permit for a few dolphins just before the Navy dolphins to test the waters to see if they were going to give us one. Now bear in mind, if you want to capture dolphins and send them to a shopping center in Canada, no problem. Here's your permit, they'll give it to you. The tuna industry wants to kill 20,000 for their tuna operation, here's your permit, no problem. You want to capture some to run them through the Dolphin Research Center and sell them to a discotheque in Switzerland as a research project, no problem here's your permit. Oh -- Ric O'Barry, you want to release two? -- We're worried about those two. They're not worried about the 20,000 they just slaughtered.

So in response to the permit here was the answer I got, a fax--14 feet long and all kind of reasons why I can't get a permit. Prove to us that dolphins are capable of breeding in the wild and the predators are not going to attack them. All kind of ridiculous things that you can't possibly prove. In other words this says no, you can't have a permit. Ironically, if I wanted to take the same two dolphins and exploit them in a swim program somewhere in Honduras or out of the country, legally you could do that. They'll help you do that. It's only when you want to do the right thing they stop you.


O'BARRY; To answer your question, it was the only thing to do. Look, there's only two alternatives,okay? I know at this point before I release them, a few days before I release them, I know for sure they're coming to confiscate them and take them back to polluted San Diego Bay and put them into 30 by 30 cages again, okay? I know also there's no permit required to release them. As a matter of record, you will see that you didn't need a permit until 13 days after the release.

You have to understand that I knew in advance, a few days in advance, from a deep throat at the National Marine Fisheries Service and a veterinarian with APHUS were coming to confiscate them and take them to San Diego Bay which is polluted and put them back into this cage for the rest of their life. That was the only thing to do, that was the responsible thing to do. And I released them into the wild knowing there's no permit required but unfortunately it was sabotaged. They were waiting for them. They knew they were coming and they were there with the recall pinger. It's a matter of record. All ... dolphins are trained to come to this pinger and although we extinguished all of their behaviours we didn't give them a lobotomy. They remember that pinger and members of the Dolphin Research Center and the Marine Mammal Conservancy dolphin trainers were feeding them dead fish. Had I released Flipper in Brazil in the same area they would have recaptured him and said we're saving him because he's not making it.

There's a period of adjustment when you first release a dolphin into the wild and during this period they may come ashore and contact people. In Brazil this happened and we were able to ask the people, please don't feed the dolphin. Respect this period of adjustment and they cooperated and as a result that was very successful that release. Had we released that dolphin in the Florida Keys they would have simply kept feeding him and capturing him. So we were in the wrong place to do it. We wanted to take the dolphins to Mississippi but that was impossible. That was not possible at all. Ah we did the right thing. We prepared them properly and I feel good about it. It's just unfortunate that the captivity industry is so powerful and they have the National Marine Fisheries Service as their errand boy.


O'BARRY: They came ashore. People were feeding them. Begging for food, no. I don't believe that was true. As a matter of fact, I should say this off the record, excuse me. But we have absolute proof that they were catching their own fish at the marina in Key West.


O'BARRY: May 23rd, we released them in the Gulf of Mexico where they came from. Not the exact area, but in the Gulf of Mexico. For a few days they weren't seen and then they showed up in Key West at a marina. According to the owner of the marina, they were catching fish like the wild dolphins do at his marina all the time. The Dolphin Research Center, the Marine Mammal Conservancy, the police, the Monroe County Sheriff's Department, the U.S. Navy, [02:04:20] the Coast Guard were all there. It was absolutely - it was like a Peter Sellers movie. And they asked the owner of the marina- 'would you allow us to put a net across there and capture the dolphin and he said, hell no, he's doing fine, believe me, I've watched the dolphins, they're catching fish.' They were allowed to capture them and take them back to the Navy.

Naomi Rose:

ROSE: The Navy uses bottlenose dolphins and a couple of other species in some of their work. They've had dolphins in captivity since I believe the 60's, possibly even the 50's. The program grew in the 70's and 80's until it included at least 105 bottlenose dolphins and a few beluga whales and I believe a pilot whale or two. And there was also a couple killer whales at some point in the program.

And generally speaking, what they were using them for was retrieving objects. You know, it's a great method of retrieving things that fall overboard. You've got basically an animal that's very smart and can be trained to fetch and you just send them out after it to guard patrol, guard and patrol harbours, if something strange or novel or not supposed to be there showed up, they would go to their trainer and warn them.

And also apparently--and this is hotly debated in activist and advocate circles-- also, apparently they train them to plant land mines on vessel hulls and even to kill scuba divers. Now, apparently all that's kept classified, that last category of task is still classified and so I'm not in a position to say whether it's true or not. There are some individuals in the activist community who swear that they were training them to do that so I just sort of leave that to the audience to decide.

But I do know, of course they have no trouble admitting it's not classified, that they were training them to do all these other things. And then, of course, the entire military have budget cuts in the late 80's and whatever, and so one of the first programs targeted to be downsized was the dolphin program. Because in the end, a lot of of the brass recognized that a dolphin is not a reliable soldier. They're moody. They have personalities, they don't understand the concept of loyalty to their country. They're not citizens of the United States, they're citizens of the ocean, so they weren't reliable. I mean if they really didn't wanna do it, they wouldn't do it. And when you're in a military combat specifically, combat situation--that's a very, very troublesome element of uncertainty. So a lot of the brass were basically sort of giving up on it anyway, at least in combat situations. You know, we're having them retrieve objects and all that's great but, that's about it, you didn't need 105 dolphins for that, so forth and so on.

So, they were gonna downsize and, we, being the advocate community, the Humane Society, a few other groups, worked very hard in Congress to get them to order the Navy to release those downsized animals back into the wild. Most of them fact were wild caught, not all of them, but a lot of them, and, in fact we got a directive from Congress to do that.

And what the Navy did with that directive was they got together a group of experts, to discuss the viabilit of a rehabilitation and release program. Congress appropriated $500,000, half a million dollars to look at the issue and to do it.

I mean half a million dollars, a lot of money, so they I believe if you read the language in the Congressional directive you'll see that they intended them to use that money to do it. To start a program and release these dolphins. Instead the Navy used that money to get together this panel of experts and hold approximately I believe about six days of meetings. Now, they produced a report at the end of those six days of meetings. Basically said rehabilitation and release was probably possible but would be expensive and would be experimental for at least another decade, and so they didn't recommend that the Navy do it.

And at the end of all of that, $500,000 was missing. I mean I can only say missing because it cannot possibly have cost all that money to have six days of meetings and produce that report but that was the end of it for the Navy. They still had to downsize however, so they offered basically about a dozen animals to the public display industry-- any facility that was legal, licensed by the government, could have these animals for the public display.

And when they made that offer,the activist community wanted to acquire some of those animals for pilot rehab/release project, and there was a facility in Florida, that was making itself available as a sanctuary. And after some interesting discussions with the Navy, very intense negotiations ,the Navy agreed to turn over six animals to this facility in Florida and the Humane Society of the United States. And, the Humane Society was not actually going to have title to these animals because we don't have a facility we're not in the business of owning animals, of course. But we would oversee sort of the project, this rehab release project through this facility in Florida.

So memorandum of agreement was written up and all of that. In the end, only three animals came to that sanctuary. There was nothing, y'know sort of sinister about that. It just--logistics worked out that way. And, the project started out well, we had high hopes, we really did think that this was gonna work. The animals were originally from Mississippi so they went to Florida just as a halfway house and they were gonna be taught to eat live fish and weaned off of human dependency and basically desensitized to commands. And people handling them, and then they were gonna go to Mississippi and and be released back where they were captured. That was the plan.

Unfortunately there was a lot of people problems and I think in the end, captive wildlife often suffers from the inability of humans to get along. And I feel very very sad about that, but it happens more times than I can possibly say.

Anyway, there were a lot of people problems and in the end certain decisions were made that weren't exactly what we had planned. For instance we had hoped to get a research permit from the United States government because of course we wanted to do this legally. There's a law that protects marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and we wanted to make sure that everything we did, from handling the animals to releasing them into the wild was legal.

There were those involved in the project who disagreed with that, they didn't think the government did have legal authority over what we were planning to do. So rather than take it to court, which is perhaps a matter for a court to decide --they simply decided to conduct an act of civil disobedience and break the law as it currently stands. Problem with that of course is the dolphins didn't volunteer to perform an act of civil disobedience. And so the release was conducted illegally and as I said it maybe that the government doesn't have any jurisdiction over that sort of action but it's something that needs to be decided in a court. It's unresolved at the moment so until it's resolved in a court, you have to presume that the government does have authority.

So they did do an illegal release, they being the, the activists who disagreed with the Humane Society, and obviously the animals weren't prepared. The protocols that we had hoped would be followed to prepare them for life back in the wild were not followed. They were still dependent on people, they still associated people with food, all of these habits that we, the Humane Society of United States feel need to be broken before they're released weren't.

And then, to top it all off, instead of taking them back to Mississippi, they released them off of Key West and the analogy I like to use for that is that it's like taking somebody who knows New York Cityreally really well and saying -- 'hey, big cities are big cities, let them go in the middle of Chicago' and expect them to get along. They don't know any of the street names, they don't know any of y'know directions they don't know where all the important points in the city are, they don't know the subway, or the L or whatever, I mean, just because it's a big city doesn't mean it's the big city they know just because it's the ocean doesn't mean it's the part of the ocean that they know so they didn't know any of the dolphins in that area, they were total strangers.

And it wasn't even like they were returning to Mississippi and remeeting old friends or relatives, they were complete and total strangers in a strange land when they were released off of Key West And as I said, they apparently weren't prepared because they immediately started begging for food.

Within two weeks they were recaptured because the National Marine Fisheries Service considered it an illegal release which it technically was at that point, and confiscated them. It was easy to recapture them, that in and of itself should say something. If they were truly wild again, it would have been just as hard to recapture them as if they had been newly captured, instead they just called them and they came. They responded to the signals, nothing had been extinguished, and so they came right to people. They were starving, they weren't doing very well, they had been injured, apparently two of them in fact had been hit by a boat. They'd separated, so they caught them in different areas, about 70 miles apart and now all three of these dolphins are back with the Navy. One of them in fact is still in Florida and probably will remain there although I believe technically is still a Navy dolphin, the other two are back in San Diego in the Navy facility there.


ROSE: He may be right. The Humane Society of the US isn't terribly interested at the moment in pursuing that legally because, we believe we can get a permit. And, we feel that that will give us a stronger case, that we can justify it scientifically and ethically and pragmatically. And because we want the biggest stick to whack the public display industry over the head with. We want to be able to say to them - 'see we can play your game, not.' And we don't think it's a dirty game. We think getting a permit from the government is perfectly legitimate process'We can play your game and we can win and we can prove, prove to your satisfaction, let alone ours that these animals can be returned to the wild. So that's why we aren't particularly interested in pursuing this as a legal matter.

But, Mr. O'Barry may be perfectly correct that the National Marine Fisheries Servicereally doesn't have jurisdiction over rehabilitation and release efforts. If that's so, they gotta go to court. This has gotta be decided by a court. That's what a lawsuit is all about, challenging the legal authority -- in this case-- the National Marine Fishery Service.

And a judge will look at all the evidence and look at the statute, look at the language and say y'know -- you don't have authority or, I'm sorry you do have authority, whatever the judge decides. And that's how you deal with that. You don't simply commit an act of civil disobedience, with innocent animals that don't know what they're getting into, I mean I know that sounds funny but, the dolphins were pawns in a political gesture. I don't think that's fair.


ROSE: Well, basically the activist and advocate community is divided. There are those who believe it's important to do this legitimately. By legitimately I mean legally, as things standwith a scientific research permit. With all of the trappings, if you will, that go along with that. And then there's the side of the community that believes that all that's just hooey and it should be-- the government doesn't have authority and we should just be able to rehabilitate, release these animals without any more fuss.

And, I think we've made it very clear to the larger audience, including the public display industry that there is such a division and I regret the division. Division's bad but nevertheless it exists. Therefore what happened with the Navy dolphins, I think is, clearly separate, even to our enemies if you will than what some of the rest of us want to accomplish.

So in terms of the damage it may or may not have done, I don't think it was particularly damaging. On the other hand it was terribly damaging to Jake, Buck and Luther. They were away from the Navy, they were on their way to being rehabilitated and returned to the wild, and they're back with the Navy now. In the end[01:19:40] you have to look at results, not intentions and the result of what happened in that situation is that those animals are no longer on the roadto freedom. And I can't emphasize that enough.


ROSE: Luther and Jake... Buck is still in Florida.

The pens in the Navy facility are 30 by 30. That is six feet by six feet more than is required by law. Okay. Minimum horizontal dimension. Minimum circumference, if you will, of a circle or one side of a square is not the same as ideal by any means. It's one of the things I find most troublesome about US law. US law set up so that it can only establish minimum dimensions of an enclosure. It cannot mandate ideal dimensions.

If the minimum dimensions are truly minimum, then some facilities are gonna try to get away with just the bare minimum, [02:01:30] okay. Minimum in this case, since it's all they can mandate, should be very generous on the side of the animal, it should give every benefit of the doubt to the animal. Ultimately the constituent of the animal and plant health inspection service of the USDA is the animal. But just get them to admit that, to them the constituent is the industry. That's terrible.

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