DIANA REISS: STUDYING “THE DOLPHIN IN THE MIRROR”
By Paul Freeman
Yes, dolphins are intelligent creatures. It’s humans we sometimes have to wonder about.
That’s evident from Diana Reiss’ fascinating and profoundly moving new book, “The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In it, she describes her heartwarming experiences with these clever creatures, as well as the horrifying treatment they face in various parts of the world.
One of the world’s leading authorities on dolphin intelligence, Dr. Reiss, 62, is Professor of Psychology at Hunter College in New York City (where she lives with her husband and daughter) and Director of Dolphin Research at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
“I have been wanting to write a book for quite some time,” said Dr. Reiss, “to share with people what I’ve learned, trying to understand the minds of the dolphins. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work up close and personal with them.
“Beyond that, it’s to act on their behalf, given what we’ve learned about their cognitive abilities and the fact that they’re being treated very badly in certain places in the world, such as Japan, where they’re still being slaughtered, or The Solomon Islands, where they’re being caught and their teeth are pulled and used for barter, for wedding dowries. So this is really a wake-up call. I’ve tried to make this a very personal account and hopefully, I’ll be able to inspire others to work for their protection, as well.”
Writing in accessible fashion, without a lot of jargon, Dr. Reiss touches the reader, as well as providing facts.
“People generally have an idea that dolphins are intelligent, that they’re social, but what I hope to get across is that there’s someone in there. When you work with individual dolphins, you realize that they have personalities, just like we have personalities. I’m working with these specific individuals who can be deceptive, who can be funny, who can show an intelligence that’s been far beyond our reach in the past.”
In the book, Dr. Reiss details her work in mirror self-recognition. The results reveal the dolphins’ remarkable level of self-awareness, similar to that of humans, elephants and great apes.
“I’m hoping that it will get us to realize that we’re not apart from the rest of nature. For a long time, we’ve seen ourselves as being at the top of the pine tree, with all other forms of life below us. That vision has changed. Now we think in terms of the spreading oak, with other animals amongst the branches.
“We’ve each evolved in our own way, to deal with the challenges, both social and environmental. So to say we’re more intelligent or this one is more intelligent, I’m not sure gets us anyplace. I’m hoping that we see ourselves as just one of the species that shows this kind of intelligence that manifests in these different forms, whether it’s mirror self-recognition, showing empathy for others, problem-solving or referential communication. Hopefully we’ll feel a real connection.”
When there’s a disconnect, animals suffer. Reiss was the scientific advisor for the “The Cove,” the chilling Oscar-winning documentary that exposed the shocking slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. The fishermen there cater to a multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry and an underground market for mercury-tainted dolphin meat.
“We’ve been working with the Japanese government, trying to get them to put an end to this horrendous behavior. It’s very hard to be a scientist who’s studied these animals, who has close, personal relationships with dolphins, and not work towards these changes. I feel like they need a voice. And we need to find a way to end this. The methods have actually gotten worse, if you can believe it. ‘The Cove’ is what I call ‘the Disney version’ of what really goes on. You couldn’t show what really goes on. It’s like something out of ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ This is something that we have to change. And we have to change it now.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Reiss rescued animals as a child. She appreciated the arts and sciences equally.
Reiss became involved in theatre, working as a set designer. In the mid-’70s, she traveled with a troupe to Poland, where an experimental workshop director had the actors do animal calls. “I had an epiphany,” Reiss said. “I wanted to study animal communication.”
After earning her doctorate at Temple University, Reiss taught at San Francisco State in the ‘80s and opened a dolphin research lab at Marine World in Vallejo. She frowns on dolphin shows for people’s amusement. “Those are old-school ways about thinking about dolphins. They’re a thing of the past, hopefully. I don’t think it’s the right message, that we’re training them, that they’re at our feet, doing behaviors. In focusing on their physical prowess, we often have completely ignored the cognitive and social prowess of these animals.”
Dr. Reiss has been called “The Dolphin Whisperer.” “When I’m interacting with dolphins, I try to listen to them and observe them passively first, so I can get a better sense of what they’re like, before I go in there. Rather than me approaching them, I let them take the first step, on their terms, and then I take it from there.
“When you start actually working with them, it’s a matter of treating them respectfully, and working with them on an emotional level. If you’re sitting with your dog or cat, there’s an emotional quality about it. You’re not thinking about them as just an object. They’re creatures that give you comfort and hopefully, you give them comfort.”
In 1985, Reiss led efforts to rescue Humphrey the humpback whale, who had been stranded in San Francisco Bay. The event garnered massive media attention.
“We were getting calls, an outpouring of concern, from all over the world, including Japan and these countries that were involved in whaling. It was incredible how big this story was. It’s easier for people to identify one lost soul, one lost whale. It’s sort of the ‘E.T.’ phenomenon, the alien creature in our waterways. And we can empathize. And that’s what’s wonderful about us. Maybe it’s just too hard for the public to think about this group of animals that’s getting slaughtered. It’s too overwhelming.”
Joining the campaign to save dolphins from being caught in tuna nets, Reiss appeared on “The Today Show,” from an aquarium, with dolphin friends Delphi and Pan. “I said, ‘These are the same animals that are being caught in these tuna nets.’ If we named all these animals, would people care more? Perhaps, if we learn more about these creatures as individuals, we will care more for the species. I’ve written this book with that hope.”
Reiss pointed out that, in the internet age, scientific knowledge can travel at light speed. “There’s no more excuses that we are ignorant. Our science is everywhere. It doesn’t stop at certain geographic boundaries. With our science spreading, we need to change our policies.
“Scientists sometimes think that, if they start working as advocates, they’ll be viewed as less objective in their science. But that’s an old way of thinking. We can do our science, but we can also, as human beings, apply that science to making this a better place.”
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.