Dr. Toni Frohoff | Life among dolphins
Syndicated from moonmagazine.org, Jun 30, 2017

22 minute read


Dr. Toni Frohoff | Life among dolphins

in Interview

Dr. Toni FrohoffToni Frohoff, Ph.D., is a renowned wildlife author, science-based advocate, and marine mammal behavioral biologist who has been studying marine mammal behavior and communication for thirty years. She is the co-founder and research director at the international TerraMar Research and Learning Institute, a nonprofit cetacean research institute located in Santa Barbara, California. Dr. Frohoff is also co-founder of Wild-Wisdom, a new nonprofit that not only provides educational and experiential opportunities for connecting with what is wild and wise within and around us, but also contributes to the lives of the wild animals from whom we learn.

Dr. Frohoff’s work for government and non-profit agencies has contributed to the revision and implementation of management and legislation protecting marine mammals in captivity and in the wild in almost a dozen countries. She lectures internationally and her research is frequently featured in media such as Time, The New York Times, Smithsonian, NPR, and Animal Planet and National Geographic television. She is co-editor of the anthology, Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond (Sierra Club Books, 2003) and co-author of Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication (2008, Yale University Press).

The MOON: How did you come to work with dolphins?

Frohoff: I had several experiences that precipitated my love for dolphins, which led me to make a career of studying them. As a teenager, I was learning to surf in southern California and found myself—along with the other nearby surfers—surrounded by a group of bottlenose dolphins. They were surfing the waves with us. I could hear their sounds underwater. Their presence made the ocean come alive in a way I’d never experienced it before. It was phenomenal.

Later I saw a PBS program on interspecies communication, which featured the work of John Lilly and Lou Herman, and I realized I could work with dolphins as a career. This struck me with the force of one of those “light bulb” moments. Dr. Lilly’s organization, the Human/Dolphin Foundation, was still active in Malibu at that time, so I began to volunteer there – and then with dolphins in the Florida Keys. I’d been working as a sound engineer in music recording studios, but I went back to school to study psychology, and eventually to get my Ph.D. in behavioral biology, with a background in ethology—which is, essentially, the quantitative study of animal behavior. I wanted to know what dolphins were thinking and feeling, which, thirty years ago, was considered “soft science,” just as human psychology was once considered a “soft science.” So I wanted to ensure I had credentials that would be respected in the scientific community.

Over the last thirty years we have experienced a paradigm shift in science, so that we don’t have to refer to “the internal state” of other animals, we can use words like “emotions” and “feelings.” There are well-founded studies in neuroscience and animal psychology and behavior that support this terminology. When I started out, “feelings” was kind of a dirty word with regard to animals, but now many key scientists are on the bandwagon that other species have “consciousness” and even “personhood,” which is fabulous.

The MOON: That’s great. I’m always surprised when I read a headline that research reveals some additional species “might” be self-aware, and I think, “Wow. That’s news? How long did it take you to figure that out?”

Frohoff: [Laughs] Exactly. I call that the “duh” factor. I mean, how many species do we have to study to conclude that other species are self-aware, and that they have great capacity to experience emotions such as pain and pleasure? For how many species do we have to demonstrate sophisticated cognition and emotional capacity before we acknowledge them for who they are, not merely what they are, and treat them accordingly? To be really scientific, the onus should be on disproving these states in animals, rather than the other way around.

The MOON: Yes. But of course, half the time we don’t treat other humans all that well, either.

Frohoff: That’s true. It’s what I hope will be one of the spin-offs of our work with animals. For example, dolphins’ capacity for compassion may be “the gateway drug” to humans expanding their perception of other animals—and then expanding our perception of our own species.

The MOON: What do you find most compelling about your work with dolphins?

Frohoff: I think what is most compelling is that, even as “experts,” we really know so little about the minds and hearts of other animals. In my research with dolphins and whales, I’ve found that the facts are even more fascinating than the fables. Although we live in a “Flipper-ized” culture and mythological stories and fables about dolphins abound, the magic of who they are really comes to light the more we study and see them not only as species, but as distinctive individuals.  We can best uncover the veil between dolphins and humans (or humans and other animals) when we treat them with respect, and interact collaboratively with them rather than domineering over them. That is really the stage our research is conducted at now. Rather than conduct research on dolphins, I have been working collaboratively with them. They are active participants in the study who exert free will on their own terms, not primarily on ours.  Only in this way can we learn from them – and not only about them. There is much wisdom to be gleaned from them and many other animals.

The MOON: Can you give me some examples of ways in which the facts exceed the fables?

Two dolphins

Frohoff: The neurobiology of dolphins demonstrates that their capacity for emotions—including suffering—is at least equal to or even exceeds our own. We’ve become inculturated with the concept that other animals—ignoring that humans, too, are animals—are mechanistic, or instinctual. We refer to animals as “it,” rather than “he,” or “she,” or “who.” This language and associated myth not only objectifies them but limits our own capacity for learning from them.

Our horrible history with animals is replete with ignoring their clear expressions of pain and suffering, as well as ignoring what gives them pleasure and comfort. But we know now that the parts of the brain that are responsible for emotional depth and breadth are extremely sophisticated in dolphins and many other species. So it’s no longer a question of “do they feel?” It’s a question of “what do they feel,” and now that we know what they feel, how can we do better by them?

The MOON: Can you share some examples you have seen of this capacity for feeling demonstrated in the ocean, as opposed to in the laboratory, under dissection?

Frohoff: Yes, certainly. And, by the way, I want to make clear that when I speak about research on the brain it has been post-mortem. No dolphin died for the research I’m citing.

But, to get back to how facts can be more fabulous than fables, I’ll mention an experience I had with a free-ranging beluga whale in northeastern Canada we called Wilma, which I wrote about in Dolphin Mysteries. (Belugas and orcas are also classified as dolphins, by the way.) Wilma had created kind of a “pod” around her from the human maritime community because she was “lost” or isolated from other belugas. I was getting into the water with her to train my graduate student how to video record her under water. I said “Let’s try to be as minimally intrusive as possible,” so that we wouldn’t change her behavior by being in the water with her—as if we were shooting some kind of underwater reality series.

My instructions—which reflected the academic methodologies taught to me—proved to be quite silly, especially around this highly social, playful and gregarious whale. So, though I’m demonstrating how to float “invisibly,” with my arms and hands at my side, so as to be uninteresting, the next thing I know, this wonderful, thousand-pound-plus beluga is ever so gently pressing her bulbous forehead against mine. I’m trying to be “invisible” around an animal whose sensory capabilities far exceed my own. Ha!

Although we remained with foreheads touching for only several minutes, for me, time was suspended. I heard what I presumed was her sonar echolocation, which so far exceeds even our own sophisticated technology that the military has drafted dolphins into military service, unfortunately. This whale imparted a lesson to me and my student, who was watching intently. She gave us a glimpse of the beauty and magic we could perceive every day in in nature if we only open ourselves to it.

Of course this was clearly interspecies communication. I have various possible interpretations of what this beluga was communicating to me, but clearly her actions were deliberate and intentional. She proved that my strategy of being an “objective third-party observer,” intent on not communicating, was a poor one, to say nothing of being impolite beluga etiquette. Following her lead proved to be a superior methodology.

The MOON: That’s funny. It reminds me of a child who puts a bag over her head and thinks that you can’t see her because she can’t see you.

Frohoff: That’s a perfect analogy. That’s the place we’re arriving at in our science. The concept of the completely objective scientist is like that of a child with a bag over her head. It’s a myth that we can ever be completely objective. I think we have to acknowledge what is most human about us before we can be with other species. In that way, I believe I have learned to be a better human from having been in the presence of other species. To pretend that they’re not persons in their own right, or that my subjectivity is irrelevant, is a façade. It’s a lie. That idea is simply a by-product of our technological era—and I think we’re finally getting smarter than that.

Of course, what I demonstrated to the student was really my lack of knowledge of dolphins and of good dolphin research. Which is just one of many examples of how we’re not just learning about dolphins; we’re also learning from them. My hope is that we can expand our perspective of animal research to that which encompasses animal personhood, so that we observe them as our teachers—sometimes our elders, sometimes our youth—all of whom have great lessons to impart to us if we would simply, as you said, take the bag off our head.

I think that’s in part why Leakey chose Jane Goodall—who had no formal scientific training, nor even a general college degree—to be his lead researcher with the primates. I think he suspected that education would get in the way—would act like a bag over the head, or at least as some kind of blinders on one’s vision.

The MOON: When you mention that dolphins might be our elders, you remind me that dolphins evolved, what, fifty million years ago, whereas humans only stood upright one hundred thousand years ago. So evolutionarily, they really are our elders.

Frohoff: We would see that we have so many elders if we properly redefined our perspective of the evolutionary tree. Humans are certainly not the pinnacle of evolution. Dolphins and many other species have been in their current and very sophisticated form for millions of years, whereas homo sapiens are a relatively new species. That doesn’t mean we’re more highly evolved. That’s pure hubris. Certainly we have areas in which we are evolved. But some animals, like dolphins, have been in their current form for millions of years and have adapted exquisitely to their environments. Dolphins have developed their society and communication to an extent that puts our species to shame. We have this idea that being like an animal is a bad thing, but if we were to more fully embrace our “animality” we might find ourselves capable of much more than we thought. We might be more expanded people.

I don’t mean to imply that every dolphin is better than every human. I’m not trying to romanticize other species. But there is so much we could learn from them—not just from their evolutionary history, but from how they conduct their lives.

I’d like to give you an example from the orcas, who unfortunately are called “killer whales” because of their remarkable predatory abilities. The resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest have exhibited what may be considered the most peaceful and least violent culture of any society in the world. They’re fish-eaters; not the orcas seen eating sea lions, for example. They are perhaps the most thoroughly matrilineal culture on earth. Both the males and females stay with their mothers and grandmothers, who are very long-lived, for their entire lives. Although adults mate with members of other pods, they return to their pod of origin. Orcas also have their own dialects, unique to each pod.

But the part I love most is that, despite their remarkable lethal capabilities, they probably exhibit less violence within their own pods than any human culture I have known of. If you want to observe a culture where peace prevails, one might ironically look at the orcas, or so-called “killer whales.”

The MOON: I’ve read that orcas even call each other by first names.

Frohoff: Scientists are finding that orcas and many species have the equivalent of individual names. To me that’s another “duh,” or “of course” conclusion. We have enough empirical evidence now that the burden of proof should be on those who want to discover whether there are species that don’t have names. Because even many species to which we attribute very few sophisticated abilities show that they have individual-specific names, and are brilliantly complex and sophisticated in their own unique ways.

Jellyfish, for example, don’t have “brains,” but they have many of the same neurons that we do in our brains—they’re just not centrally located; they’re distributed throughout their bodies. We have called them “brainless,” but they are by no means “brainless.” We have just been looking at them through our anthropomorphic lens.

I think it was The Economist magazine that called this era the Anthropocene, in part, because we’re so self-absorbed. This attitude is now reflected in the earth’s entire ecology. If this is the era of the Anthropocene, when for the first time in the history of the planet the fate of all species rests on the actions of one species—ours—then we better get it together.

And we can get it together. That’s part of why we created Wild-Wisdom, an organization to teach humans what we can learn from the wild. One of the co-founders, Dr. Debra Durham, is a primatologist and anthropologist who has been sharing the wisdom we can learn from other species. There are a growing number of scientists like her in that respect. One of the practices we want to share goes back to John Lilly’s work with flotation tanks, or what used to be called “isolation tanks,” because they isolate you from external sensory stimulation. John invented them in 1954, during his work with the National Institutes of Mental Health, and realized that peace can be found in these tanks. He wrote about it his book, The Deep Self.

You might have noticed that some journalists refer to me as an “animal listener,” instead of an “animal whisperer.” I like that distinction because it reflects the importance of being quiet, slowing down, so that we can listen to what other animals have to say. I don’t think people have to go into flotation tanks to do that, but I know it really helped me to go into the flotation tank prior to being with the dolphins. Quieting the mind, along with all of its expectations, entitlements, hopes, really seems to be a prerequisite for learning from animals – if not each other. It made me more receptive, which helped me to be a much better scientist – and a more conscious person on this much-more-than-human planet. Pretty simple.

The MOON: Pretty simple, but not necessarily easy, because we’ve got so much incoming all the time, and we’re so conditioned to respond to it!

Frohoff: Exactly! And when you think that John Lilly recognized the utility  of these tanks back in 1954, before computers or pagers or smart phones, imagine how much greater the challenge to “unplug” and quiet our minds is now than it was then! We’re constantly bombarded, and we’ve become so dependent on “being connected” all the time—even if that “connection” disconnects us from the natural world and perhaps our own centers!

The MOON:  From reading your work, I’ve learned that dolphins tend to be more acoustically oriented, while humans are typically more visually oriented. Please tell us what that means in terms of shaping our relative experiences.

Frohoff: We know that dolphins communicate with extreme precision and complexity acoustically, and where they really seem to excel is in echolocation, or sonar, probably as the result of adapting to an aquatic environment, in which sound travels much farther than sight. They can send and receive acoustic messages, and they have developed sonar that still exceeds that of our own Navy’s capabilities. Some scientists, including Lilly, postulate that dolphins can send holographic acoustic images that can convey symbolic meaning, much as we use printed words, although this has yet to be empirically demonstrated.

We do have data showing that dolphins can make sounds that can stun fish. I have also observed a traumatized, captive dolphin emit such a forceful sound wave that it bruised the thigh of the man it was directed towards. This was not a metaphysical act, but a sonic one. We often attribute things to metaphysics simply because they’re not in our own physical or scientific repertoire.

Dolphins also communicate visually—through postures and gestures—and we have created a kind of “dolphin dictionary” of their movements, but of course these aren’t as practical across great distances as acoustic or sonar communications. The dolphins’ “smile,” however, is misleading if relied upon for communication. Even a dead or suffering dolphin has a smile on her face.

The MOON: You’ve spoken a bit about the gentleness of orcas. Lilly, too, found orca gentleness to be extraordinary, and he took this to be an indicator of their superior intelligence. How do you explain incidents like the one that happened at Sea World a few years ago, where an orca killed his trainer?

Frohoff: I explain it as the result of a maximally stressed (orca) person lashing out against a captor. No one that I know, who has spent years in the wild with these creatures, has ever seen an orca exhibit that kind of behavior—intentionally injuring a human being.

An orca in captivity has been forcefully institutionalized and has hence become traumatized.  Many of them may even suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from seeing their mothers killed in front of them and from a life that causes daily physical and psychological suffering. A captive orca is not a reasonable representation of his or her species. Lilly himself expressed concern that studying cetaceans in captivity was akin to “running a concentration camp for my friends, the dolphins.”

The MOON: One researcher commented at the time of the incident that, relative to their size, keeping orcas in tanks is like keeping humans in a bathtub. There isn’t enough room for them.

Frohoff: Right. It almost makes a goldfish bowl look spacious. And when you consider the sound waves bouncing off those tanks, and the fact that orcas and other dolphins are so acoustic, it would be far worse than being kept in a bathtub. They’re hearing the water pumps, the din of the music and the crowd…we can’t even imagine the constant stress of being under that kind of acoustic assault.

And then, consider that orcas never experience walls in the wild. They live in a wide-open, three-dimensional environment; they swim for many miles every day without encountering the borders that terrestrial animals are used to. In addition to limiting their mobility, captivity also limits freedom of association. Orcas are highly social animals. If they are confined to a tank with other orcas they don’t like, away from orcas they love, where can they go to avoid unwanted company? Where can they be alone to relieve their stress?

Ric O’Barry, one of Flipper’s trainers who now advocates for the end of dolphin captivity worldwide, was hired by Lilly to release Joe and Rosie to the wild. Joe and Rosie were the two dolphins Lilly was referring to when he said he didn’t want to “run a concentration camp for his friends.” I had the opportunity to work with Joe and Rosie, and they were two of the best dolphin teachers a person could ever have. Releasing them was an example of “when you know better, you do better.” Now that we know dolphins are so smart, we can’t morally, ethically, capture and confine them. How can anyone want to imprison, slaughter, or eat them?

Ric O’Barry, by the way, is also the man who was featured in The Cove, about the annual Japan dolphin “harvest.” He’s made a full circle: a dolphin trainer who is now an advocate and instrument for dolphins remaining in the wild.

in Interview

It was through working with Joe and Rosie, however, that I saw a lot of people get beat- up by dolphins. Because that’s what can happen when you put dolphins—or any sentient being, including humans—in captivity without the ability to make meaningful choices. Captivity is institutionalized trauma.

The MOON: Dolphin Mysteries also describes an incident in which two male dolphins in the wild were harassing a female dolphin—apparently for unwanted sexual relations. The female was bleeding as a result of the males’ aggression, and ultimately sped off with the males in hot pursuit. What can you say about that kind of behavior?

Frohoff: I can say that every dolphin is not an example of model citizenry—any more than any one human is a fair representation of all human behavior. Males of many species have far to go in respecting women’s rights – whether they are dolphins or ducks. But we’re learning how individual each dolphin is. They have personalities. So you can see dolphins come to the aid of other dolphins, or of humans in distress. Some dolphins will be more aggressive—in the wild, or in captivity. Captivity is probably a pretty hellish existence for dolphins. They’re highly intelligent, and captivity limits every one of their capacities. They’re capable of swimming miles a day, but they’re confined to small tanks. They’re highly social, but they’re trapped with individuals they may not want to associate with. There’s no escape. That’s why there have even been incidents of dolphins killing other dolphins in captivity. It’s the same story of putting too many rats in a cage, or too many people in a room. Stress increases, and so do rates of aggression, especially if there is no possibility of choosing when, how often, and with whom one associates.

The MOON: Have you seen any evidence of dolphins holding each other accountable to group standards of dolphin behavior? For example, might a group of dolphins take action against two overly aggressive male dolphins to teach them the group’s norms?

Frohoff: I think it’s a great question. The example of the orcas—the largest of the dolphins—and how peaceful they are with one another in their pods indicates that they must have some means of maintaining ethics, or etiquette, in their culture, because they do have very consistent social norms across generations. There do seem to be different levels of acceptable morality among groups. For example, my untested perception is that bottlenose dolphins can be rougher with each other physically—permissive of more aggression with each other—than the resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest, just as there is more peace-keeping in bonobo societies than there are in other chimpanzee societies.

There is a free-ranging bottlenose dolphin off the coast of Ireland with whom we are working. We’re studying collaboratively with her, both in research design and application. She’s extremely expressive and has been choosing to interact with humans without the presence of food for many years. She has undertaken her own study of humans. She’s an uncommonly good communicator with people—yet she also still associates with other dolphins. She has developed very complex relationships with certain individuals with whom she has associated for years. The name of this endeavor is the Dolphin Personhood Project. This work is not yet ready for publication, but it marks an emerging era of collaborative interspecies research. We are on the verge of establishing the “personhood” of dolphins—with enormous implications for their protection, legal rights, and our own treatment of them.

The MOON: Why do you think dolphins collaborate with us? Do they have an agenda of their own? Is there a message you think they would like to communicate to humans, or one that you would like to convey on their behalf?

Frohoff: Dolphins—and other cetaceans—are great collaborators—with humans, other dolphins, and other species. There are pods of dolphins in South America that have fished collaboratively with humans for generations. There are dolphins who have developed and maintained complex relationships with humans—without the incentive of food or other resources—for decades. Some of their collaboration appears altruistic, or reinforced by social interaction, and other times they’re simply intelligent and opportunistic enough to recognize the possibility of mutual benefit by collaborating in interspecies fishing techniques with humans.

Of the many things I’ve learned from dolphins is that dolphins are social yet vary widely between individuals. In light of the enthusiasm that many people have for interacting with dolphins, I would like to caution that we need to balance our enthusiasm with a healthy dose of respect. Dolphins are often social and gregarious, but that doesn’t mean that all dolphins want to be social with us all the time. The ocean is our playground, but it is their home. We need to respect their home environment, as we would expect anyone to respect ours.

The MOON: Your organization, TerraMar Research, has recently launched a new initiative nicknamed POD, for Protect Our Dolphins, referring to bottlenose dolphins off the Santa Barbara coast. Your website advises:

These dolphins are now facing a myriad of unprecedented environmental challenges, many of which we share with them in our coastal community. With their very small population (perhaps as few as 350 individuals along the entire California coast), dwindling pod size (a sign of stress and challenges to survival), lesions on their skin related to contaminants, severely high contaminant levels in their bodies, and exceptionally high risk from additional coastal environmental threats, these animals both deserve and need our support.

What has changed in recent years to so significantly stress the dolphin population now? What are the major threats dolphins—and other cetaceans—face worldwide?

Frohoff: Scientists concur that bottlenose dolphins in many parts of the world are exhibiting signs of environmental stress and distress ranging from skin lesions to death. The most significant threats vary by location. Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence waterway, for example, are perhaps most threatened by toxins in the water. In Taiji, Japan, the most serious threat is the annual dolphin slaughter—where dolphins are killed for fertilizer, if you can believe the barbarity of that. Worldwide, dolphins are threatened by fishing—and there are some researchers, National Geographic’s Dr. Sylvia Earl, for example, who recommend that we stop eating fish altogether because fishing methods have become so harmful to by-catch species, let alone to the targeted species. “Dolphin-safe tuna” is a nice idea, but visit the Earth Island Institute website to see how diligently they are working to ensure that there is truth to that label. Earth Island warns that the U.S. Department of Commerce’s dolphin-safe label is, in reality, “a death certificate for dolphins.” They urge consumers not to buy tuna with this label.

Worldwide, other threats to dolphins—and to most forms of marine life—include global climate change, plastic wastes, coral reef destruction, oil spills, and other toxic discharges like the radioactive wastewaters.

Because we share our coastal communities with dolphins, any harm to our coastal environment harms local dolphins. In communities like the central California coast, anything we put on our lawns or gardens, or pour down our drains, or discharge from our wastewater treatment facilities, directly affects ocean health. Although we have a cluster of laws that aim to protect our environment, they are not adequately enforced. We know this from effects on human health, as well. When surfers experience recurring eye, ear, or throat infections after only an hour or two in the water, imagine the effect on dolphins who live in the water continuously and who have very sensitive skin. When did that become acceptable—that exposure to the ocean could be hazardous to your health?

As it says on the POD website, by “protecting dolphins, we help ourselves and our shared coastal-habitat community for the benefit of generations of dolphin and human children to come.” This is further evidence of the precarious state of the global environment—where the fate of all species depends on the actions of one species—homo sapiens. Although the bad news is far-reaching, the good news is that the improvements we make have far-reaching consequences, as well. It underscores the need for awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings.


This article is syndicated from the The Moon magazine, an online magazine of personal and universal reflections.

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