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Margaret Howe Lovatt: Strange Case of a Male Dolphin Falling in Love with a Young Lady

BY Bir Singh January 10, 2020
Margaret Howe Lovatt

An unidentified woman shaking a dolphin’s hand. Photo used for illustration only. (Florida Memory / Flickr)

Life evolved on earth beginning from a single cell. Then came multicellular organisms. These all reproduced asexually, till extremes of stress arising from environment forced life forms to switch to sexual reproduction. In hard times they reproduced sexually and in normal times asexually. Further on, a big chunk of life graduated to sexual reproduction for all times. But sex generally remained confined to animals of the same species. Any deviation from this remained untenable. But there is a documented case of a sexual relationship between an aquatic mammal and a human. A 23-year-old lady, Margaret Howe Lovatt, deputed to teach the English language to a male dolphin, was forced to put up with latter’s sexual advance.

Interspecies communication was the seed-idea

The story begins with a science fiction “Man and Dolphin” written by a Dr John C. Lilly in 1961. The author, an eccentric neurosurgeon, argued that dolphin had superior brains like humans, and they pined to communicate with humans. The idea appealed to Frank Drake of National Radio Astronomy, West Virginia. Drake, an Astronomer, was searching for extra-terrestrial life by analysing radio waves received from other planets. He arranged state funding for Dr John C. Lilly and encouraged him to conduct scientific experiments to explore the possibility of interspecies communication.

Laboratory was built for human-dolphin interface

Dr Lilly couldn’t have asked for more and established a lab named Dolphin Point. The lab was equipped with a pool for 3 dolphins and a workspace for training and research. The lab attracted the attention of a passer-by young lady named Margaret Howe Lovatt.

Margaret was employed to teach English to dolphin

Margaret grew up on ballads of human-animal camaraderie and was fascinated by the idea of the lab. Dr Lilly had already established that the dolphin brain was 40% bigger than the human brain. That dolphin had a human-like response to pain and anger and could understand human language to a fair degree. Margaret’s interest in the project was viewed favourably by the Director, Gregory Bateson, and she was appointed to teach the English language to a male dolphin named Peter.

The lab was a semi-aquatic building

The Dolphin house was flush with seawater to enable Margaret to live well with Peter and 2 female dolphins. The water on the first floor was shallow for convenience of the interface between Peter – the dolphin, and the lady -. A working desk, hanging from the ceiling, was the dry area the lady could climb to for study and making notes. There was a hanging mattress too, surrounded by shower curtains, where she could retire for rest. Nevertheless, the job assigned to her was tough. Margaret cropped her hair and adjusted to a semi-aquatic living. Virtually cut off from rest of the world, she lived on canned food and focussed 24×7 on completing Peter’s training within the assigned time frame of 10 weeks.

The training program was rigorous

The training schedule of the dolphin began at 8 in the morning. The dolphin was trained to mimic a given set of human sounds. Margaret taught Peter to greet her with the sound of “Hello Margaret”. Sounding “M” was difficult for Peter. Margaret painted her face white and lips black so that her lip movement could be seen by him and he could manoeuvre his blowhole accordingly to mimic a sound. Peter worked equally hard on the sound of M, and finally succeeded by rolling over. So dedicated was the teacher-taught duo that the dolphin succeeded in pronouncing words like we, one, hello, work and play with human approximation. Dedication to assigned job led to mutual admiration, and, finally to love with sexual overtones. The lady though emphasised that sexual attraction was one-sided, from Peter to her, and not the other way round.

Peter grew fond of Margaret

As the rigorous training schedule progressed, the physical, as well as the emotional bonding between the two, grew strong. Margaret and Peter lived, ate and played together. The 22-inch deep water on the first floor permitted the two to come close for work. Gradually, Peter ceased to be all obedient and turned adventurous and naughty. When the lady said “work”, the dolphin countered “play”. The trespassing didn’t stop at that. When Margaret rested on her hanging mattress, Peter splashed water on the shower curtains, calling her down for the company. They played together as a routine in the morning at 10 AM. But Peter, seemingly, demanded more time to play. At 12 PM and 3 PM, Peter was fed on a fish-diet. At the same time, Margaret played with Peter. She would throw the ball, and towels which the dolphin would dutifully chase and bring back. Peter also got hooked to watching television in the company of Margaret. All was going well and Peter was making good progress in learning. Just then, the 6-year-old dolphin and showed signs of sexual maturity. Peter loved rubbing against Margaret and bite gently on her toes. The two slept in close proximity. At times Peter was restless at night, yelling and wriggling in the water around Margaret’s bed, and forcing her to get up early in the morning, ostensibly to feed him.

Fondness grew to possessiveness

As Margaret readied to teach shapes and counting, Peter didn’t seem to care. Like a sulking schoolboy, he didn’t listen to his teacher. Touching by Margaret made him quirky. He yelled just as Margaret opened her mouth to teach. Of all the worlds taught to him, one that he uttered best was “ball”, the symbol of playing and having fun in the water. Peter enjoyed looking at his reflection in the mirror and felt annoyed when Margaret talked on the phone. He grew extremely possessive of her and wanted her uninterrupted attention all the time.

Female dolphins failed to satiate Peter

By the second week, Peter grew fond of Margaret’s physical presence and enjoyed touching her knees, ankles, feet and legs. Though generally docile, at times, he gave her hard push. No more interested to play ball solo, he nudged her in many ways to play with him. The dolphin got sexually aroused several times in her company. This was clear as the light of the day, beyond an iota of doubt. The sexual arousal of dolphin clearly rattled their teacher-taught relationship. Peter was infatuated by his teacher’s physical presence and that showed loud and clear in his behaviour. That was something that Margaret was not prepared for. Dolphin house had a separate pool with 2 female dolphins. And as per the research protocol, a sexually aroused male was to be sent in the pool of the female dolphins. Margaret did just that. When Peter returned to Margaret after a while, he was subdued and gentle. But the attraction towards human anatomy was far from over. In fact, it got accentuated.

Margaret was forced to address dolphin’s sex drive

Peter loved rubbing his mouth on her legs. Margaret rightly concluded that Peter was trying to court her. He was positioning his underbelly and the genital area to where it could be fondled by her. It was a benign invite for sex from a dolphin which could very well be aggressive and demanding for same. Ignoring him could cost Margaret her job. Sending Peter down to female company time and again was eating into her training hours and a sexually agitated dolphin was not receptive for learning. So, in her wisdom, she decided to masturbate the aroused dolphin the hope that a sated dolphin will get back to the training schedule in earnest.

Forced cohabitation became ‘enjoyable’

It was like, she revealed, later on, a forced togetherness turning into an enjoyable togetherness. That, she added, was a very close encounter, not with a dolphin, but a male, Peter. Unfortunately, just as the two made a good company (sexual from point of view of Peter, and “probably sensuous” on Margaret’s part), the experiment had to be stopped for want of funds.

Fund crunch stopped experiment in track

With the experiment ending pre-time, in 6 weeks instead of stipulated 10 weeks, Peter was sent to a different location. There, as per the report of Veterinary Doctor, Peter committed suicide. Dolphin is very much capable of committing suicide by choosing not-to-breathe (its respiratory muscles are under its voluntary control, unlike in humans where these are involuntary and can’t be controlled by will) and drown to death in a pool of water.

Why Peter committed suicide?

So, what killed Peter? Unrequited love for a human female? Or an inability to jell with females of its own species? Or both reasons operating simultaneously?

Was training to communicate with humans a kind of stress, like the one which led to sexual differentiation during evolution? And that stress led to inter-species sexual attraction? Education is stressful even for human children, so surely it couldn’t have been any different for a dolphin. Or, was Peter treated as incompatible by the two female dolphins put in place for the former’s sexual satiation? An element of competition is integral to sexual reproduction. Several males compete to mate with a female and only one, the best of the lot, succeeds in fertilizing the female. As this choice denied to the female dolphins, did they reject Peter sexually? Organs of reproduction in female dolphin are such that a male deemed unsuitable may be entertained only partially, deceptively, without giving it a real chance of fulsome copulation. Could such rejection be the reason for the unnatural attraction of Peter towards a human female? Was the handwork done by Margaret more convenient for Peter than a cumbersome penetration into female dolphins?

This obviously is a grey area for scientific exploration.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Sex in Space – Is It Possible? and Why It is Important“.

Fact Analysis:
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