The United States Navy last week made waves by announcing it would resort to a controversial military tactic should things escalate in its Strait of Hormuz standoff with Iran: using dolphins to detect mines if the Republic blocks the only sea route out of the Persian Gulf with underwater explosives.
The cetacean activism community was outraged, as they should be. Using the second smartest mammal on the planet as pawns in a military chess match is nothing short of speciesism, “a form of prejudice against beings who are not us that is akin to racism and sexism.”
It’s also nothing new. The Navy’s program dates back to the early 1960s. Currently around 80 dolphins live at the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Facility near San Diego.
Cove star Ric O’Barry spent some time there a few years ago and weighed in this week on burgeoning controversy. In one of his more insightful posts at The Dolphin Project, O’Barry doubled down on his opposition to any form of dolphin captivity, but also burrowed further into the specifics of the Navy’s program.
Here are four key takeaways.
1) Are the dolphins only sweeping for mines, or do they moonlight in a second line of work?
Apparently, the NAVY also uses dolphins as saltwater sentinels. Writes O’Barry:
They…stop enemy divers from placing mines on our own ships.
2) How does the Navy control dolphins in the open ocean?
With something called an Anti Foraging Device (AFD). Writes O’Barry:
This is a simple strip of orange Velcro that is attached around the snout. The AFD prevents the dolphin from opening its mouth, which is necessary for the dolphin to catch fish and eat. When one is list, they send out a search team to look for the “system” using a “recall pinger,” which can be heard by the dolphin from a great distance. If the dolphin returns to the pinger and trainer, the AFD is removed and rewarded with food.
3) So dolphins obey commands from Navy handlers only to be fed?
Basically, yes. Dolphins are only dependable when they are hungry. Writes O’Barry:
The sad fact is dolphins are…controlled by food. When they are full, they do not respond. This is exactly why we had five dolphins for the Flipper TV series. When Flipper #1 had ten pounds of food and was full, I lost control, and I would bring on Flipper #2, and so on.
4) Is a life of terminal captivity and the threat of enemy fire the only beef activists have with the Navy program?
No, there are at least two more.
One: transport. Because the dolphins are based in San Diego, they are flown into combat zones, most often in over-sized cargo planes like the C-17 Globemaster III. While the Navy no doubt does its doggone best to create tanks that are as comfortable as possible, it still has to very stressful for dolphins to fly. Think about this: what would air turbulence feel like if you’ve only ever lived under the water?
Second: citizen cetacean casualties. Writes O’Barry:
Every dolphin in the area, wild or trained, is placed in harm’s way because the enemy simply kills every dolphin that they come across. One can’t really tell the difference between the friendly and the enemy dolphins. ‘Kill them all and let God sort them out’ is the plan of the day. This is done with bombs, hand grenades, and especially “ashcans,” which is an anti-submarine explosion device.