“It’s Complicated: The Lives of Dolphins and Scientists”

This pitch letter is part of The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database, which contains 290 successful pitches to a wide range of publications. To share your own successful pitch, please fill out this form.

The Story

“It’s Complicated: The Lives of Dolphins and Scientists”
by Erik Vance
Discover, September 2011

The Pitch

A long drop from the ivory tower

The story I have in mind is a double profile of two New York women and a little trip they took to the Dominican Republic that ended up getting them sued for $100 million dollars and accused of being dolphin smugglers.

Let me take a step back.

If you were to ask me to name the two people who have most contributed to our understanding of the dolphin mind, Lori Marino and Diana Reiss would be a fair answer. In fact, these two could easily be called modern versions of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey (but with dolphins instead of primates and pantsuits instead of cargo pants).

Marino is a neuroanatomist at Emory University who has studied more of the physical dolphin brain than nearly anyone else. Reiss is a behavioralist who made headlines for putting mirrors in front of elephants and dolphins as well as for coaxing a wayward humpback whale out of the San Francisco Bay 25 years ago.

Between the two of them, they have looked at almost every aspect of the dolphin brain (communication, consciousness, empathy, brain function, and on and on). However, lately their work has taken a turn. Recently, after hearing about the brutal killing/capture of dolphins in Taji, Japan (subject of the Oscar-winning film, The Cove), the two have become part-time crusaders.

The pair has begun lobbying lawmakers and consorting with all manner of activists, claiming their scientific work demonstrates that killing dolphins for food is tantamount to murder.
Eventually, their activities took them to the Dominican Republic, which was negotiating with a German entrepreneur to import a dozen Taji-caught dolphins for various Dominican water parks. The pair convinced the DR’s president that Taji dolphins would smudge the country’s green reputation. The Dominicans broke off the deal and the two patted each other on the back. Then they got home to a $100 million lawsuit from the German entrepreneur.
Now, truth be told, this suit is unlikely to succeed (though it has cost the pair about $20,000 in legal fees). But winning was never the point. This is more like a warning shot to tell these academics to go back to their labs and butt out of international dolphin trade, where the big boys play.

If that’s the case, it didn’t work. Like Fossey and Goodall before them, Marino and Reiss simply dug in their heels. Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate and clinical, never letting their opinions cloud their judgment. But the pair have stepped out from the ivory tower and gone into freefall.

“I am not worried about what people think. I can still do good science. But this issue, it goes beyond science. We have to step out from behind the curtain.”

At the AAAS meeting in February, the pair gave a presentation arguing that several dolphin species should be considered more intelligent than chimpanzees, making them the second cleverest animals on the planet. They presented graphs and data and everyone nodded. Then they ran a two-minute film of dolphins being slaughtered. It was gruesome and, sufficed to say, not what a room full of researchers wanted to see.

This story has a number of interesting angles. First, Reiss and Marino are fantastic characters. Reiss is so stubborn that she has been married three times … to the same guy. Marino is a brilliant little woman and the more ideological of the two (she condemns all aquariums that hold dolphins, unlike Reiss, who happily works in them).

Then there are the dolphins. People often say “dolphins are really smart” but don’t really know what that means. Hopefully this story will outline a few specifics of how they are similar to humans and how they are different. As it happens, we know very little about their cognitive ability, and are roughly in the same place as Goodall was with chimps a generation ago.

Lastly, there is the Taji dolphin trade. I would like to keep open the possibility of looking into captive animals in resort towns like Santo Domingo (I have a number of Dominican contacts that may be willing to help). This is a small part of the story, but an crucial element for more green- minded readers. The point would not be to condemn all captive dolphins, but to try and tease apart the good actors from the bad.

One disclaimer that will definitely be part of the story: About 10 years ago I actually published a paper with Reiss and Marino (though I had never spoken to them until two years ago) on dolphin play behavior. At the time, I was happy to just be associated with these research giants. This makes me uniquely qualified for this piece, being that I’m a little uncomfortable with the whole scientist-turned-crusader thing. I would like to challenge them with this story to convince me that advocates can also be good scientists.

I see this as being a lengthy feature. Reiss and Marino have been instructed not to talk about the legal case, but have agreed to give me an exclusive if I can line up an appropriate venue.

Skip to content